Just as we hit mid-week, we hit Wine Wednesday and let me tell you – I need it! Responding to your responses as to what you’d like to see on Wine Wednesday, I bring you: information!
I was a little unsure about what you would wanna know about wine and then I thought to myself, “what would my curious little mind wanna discover?”. I thought, let’s begin at the beginning – how wine is made. It’s a bit of a process but I think if we understand the basics of wine making, it will help us select wines in the (near) future – do I hear a hint about what next week’s post will be about??
So, get out your pencils and a notepad kittens, we got some schoolin’ to do!P.S. Side note – have you gotten on the cardamon ginger blueberry butter giveaway bandwagon yet? Click here
Essentially, a wine maker plants grapes, and they grow. The thing to keep in mind at this initial stage though is that different grapes require different care to produce different varietals of wine. Location, climate, terrain, soil, sunshine, air quality, pest issues, and irrigation are all factors that a vineyard have to take into account when planning, growing, and harvesting their grapes. That is, if they want to make good wine, of course.
Something else to remember at this stage as well is whether organic is important to you as a consumer or not. If a wine is not organic, the vines/grapes may be sprayed with all kinds of pesticides and/or other chemicals to essentially increase production. Of course, most wine isn’t organic, and if it is, it will be labelled as such – just something to think about.
The next stage in wine making is deciding when to harvest. This evaluation is determined based on varietals and their sugar levels, color, and taste. Harvesting occurs either via machine (think large growers) while many smaller and more boutique growers prefer to pick by hand in an effort to not bruise or split the grapes. Generally grapes are harvested in the late Summer or early fall or in the case of ice wine, in the dead of Winter when the grapes are actually frozen, the ice magnifying the sweetness of the grape which = super sweet delicious ice wine.
Again, something to think about: In many vineyards, harvesting and cleaning/prepping the grapes (the next step) is done by both legal and illegal migrant workers – many of whom are abused and forced to live in inhumane conditions. It’s difficult to know which vineyards employ these workers but it’s a safe bet that you can avoid this trap (if you get the opportunity) by visiting the winery during harvest season and seeing how they do their business. Obviously that can’t happen for most of us, though again, something to think about.
Prepping and crushing! Once the grapes are picked they get spread out all over the place and are de-stemmed. This occurs generally by machine though there are some wineries that have been known to manually pick the stems – talk about tedious work! The purpose of removing the stem is to avoid the bitter flavor that the stem will cause in the wine if left in tact.
Crushing is exactly what it sounds like. The grapes are crushed. White wine grapes are more or less immediately separated from their skins while red wine grapes remain in contact (called maceration) with them which results in color, tannins and flavor! The more contact with the skins, the bigger and bolder and more punch you in the face the wine is. If red wine grapes were to be separated from their skins as quickly as white wine grapes, you’d have an almost clear liquid!
Next is fermentation. This is when the naturally occuring sugars in the grapes are turned to alcohol – specifically ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide is released into the air. There are natural yeasts on grape skins but wine makers usually add special cultured yeasts which produce more predictable results and consume the sugar more effectively, resulting in higher alcohol content. Sugar and acid may also be added at this point to balance the wine.
Such processes take place in a variety of vessels – stainless steel (especially white wine with the exception chardonnay), old/French oak, or new/American oak. All of these containers affect the flavor of the wine – stainless steel tends to produce a cleaner, crisper wine while the oak barrels can create varying levels of oakiness as well as intricate details in the taste, depending on the barrel.
The length of time and temperature are both important factors in this stage and wine makers carefully regulate both of these.
Once fermentation is complete, the grapes are pressed via a machine that really stresses the last of the juice out of the grapes. From here the grapes go through:
Maturation: Racking – fining – filtering. Once the appropriate alcohol content has been reached and fermentation is complete, the skins (in the case of red wine), yeast and any other particles left behind must be separated from what is going to be the finished product.
Racking involves repeatedly pumping the liquid out of the fermenting vessel into another, resulting in the removal of sediment. This not only improves the flavor of the wine, but also aerates it to help it open up and come into it’s own. It is also at this stage that if a winemaker wants to save money on “oak” flavor, they may add oak chips into steel vats or cheaper oak barrels which will help flavor the wine. In my opinion though, this is generally a short cut method to an inferior wine.
Next is fining or clarification, where winemakers further remove any left over particles in the wine. Apparently egg whites are often used to help bind up the particles, which then separate easily from the wine by sinking to the bottom of the barrel. Who’d a known?!
Lastly, filtering removes the larger particles – creating a clear, brilliant wine that is ready for bottling!
Now let’s get our drink on! Bottling & aging is often done via conveyor machines (though can be done by hand) and involves labeling the bottles with all the relevant info such as varietal, winery, location, vintage, etc… as well as corking them. Now, winemakers have a choice here to use cork, fake/synthetic plastic cork, or screw-cap. It all depends on the winemaker’s philosophy.
I’ll tell you mine: Cork is more romantic. It’s classic and yields to tradition. However, cork is in short supply and very expensive. Synthetic cork allows us to still have the romance of opening the wine, though smelling the cork is rather fruitless. Now, as both a server and a wine lover, the screw-cap is where it’s at for me. Cork (and even synthetic cork) can lead to air getting into a bottle of vino before you get around to drinking it which equals spoiled wine. To avoid this (called cork taint), screw-caps were invented. They aren’t classic, or traditional, or romantic. But lemme tell you – if I’m gonna pay good money for a good product, I don’t want it to be ruined before I even get to it. Plus, opening a bottle of wine is infinitely easier and more enjoyable for a server if all you have to do is tilt and twist! Heck yeah – screw-cap all the way baby!
Once the wine is bottled, it’s either set away to age or shipped to the store to be bought. White wine is generally ready to drink now (with a few exceptions), while red can either be drunk immediately or aged at home – if it’s meant to be aged, it will say on the bottle. Otherwise, try to consume the wine within a year or two of it’s being produced.
Now is the good part: Drink up, buttercup! Of course, in order to drink up you’ll need to know how to go about getting the stuff. Stay tuned!