How wine is made

How wine is made

You could write entire books on how wine is made - and people have. But you don't need to work your way through a library to understand the basics of how winemakers turn grapes into that delicious liquid you pour into a glass. So if you want a simple overview of how wine is made, read on...

On a purely scientific level, wine is made by the yeasts feeding on the sugars which occur naturally in grapes and converting them into alcohol. This is called fermentation.

But things kick off with the grapes arriving at the winery where they are sorted to remove things like rotten grapes or leaves. They are then usually destemmed and put through a crusher to break them up a little.

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The next stages are slightly different depending on whether you’re making red wine or white wine. The key difference is that with white wine the solids are separated from the juice before fermentation, while red wine is fermented in contact with all the skins.

So with white wine, the grapes are pressed to separate off all the clear juice from the skins. This is a delicate process, and the winemaker has to be careful not to crush the pips which can give a bitter taste to the wine.

Winemakers may then add cultured yeasts to the juice or decide to rely on natural yeasts to do the job. Either way, fermentation now begins, usually in stainless steel tanks at a temperature of between 18 – 20ºC.

For red wine, the process is different. Red wine gets its colour, and a lot of its characteristics from the skins, so it’s important for the juice to spend more time in contact with them. Contact between skins and juice is often referred to as maceration.

Maceration takes place while the wine is actually fermenting, but winemakers can also choose to start the maceration process before fermentation in order to extract more colour, flavour and tannin from the grape skins.

With grapes and skins in the fermentation tank, the winemaker can now add yeasts or choose to use the naturally-occurring ones and fermentation can begin – for red wine, this usually happens at a slightly warmer temperature than for white wine at between at 25 – 30ºC.

Back on white wine, once the yeasts have done their work, they die and float to the bottom of the fermenting tank. These dead yeasts help form what we call the lees, which add flavour and body to white wine.

For white and red, once fermentation has finished the wine can be bottled or pumped into tanks, vats or barrels to mature. How long that process lasts depends on all sorts of things like grape variety, region, even local tradition. And winemakers all sorts of techniques to finesse their wines. But, in a nutshell, that's the fundamental process behind winemaking. 

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