From the Vine to the Wine

By Posted on Jun 25 2009 | By

img_0475When we pull the cork on a favorite bottle of wine, the last thought likely to cross our mind is, “So, how is this stuff made”?

But, it’s a great question. It’s a bit surprising we don’t focus more often on how a winemaker does what he does. Most likely, we are simply eager to smell and taste our freshly released libation, rather than spend time cogitating on its production. This is good. There is too much going on in our lives today to get sidetracked on why wine is wine.

Nonetheless, on occasion, it’s useful to gain a better understanding of the why and how of something. It can enrich our enjoyment of the thing in question and deepen our understanding of how it came to be.

In the case of wine, this is the occasion.

Throughout the world, the fall season is harvest time for wine grapes. In Virginia, white grapes are brought into the winery in September and the reds in October. This period is known as the “crush”-from the traditional act of crushing the fruit prior to fermentation. These two months, in which vivid golds, yellows and reds are splashed across the landscape, is the end of a year’s worth of meticulous vineyard work.

Wine grapes are harvested during the early morning hours, whenever possible, to keep the fruit cool and retain full flavor. Vineyard workers quickly, but gently, cut each cluster by hand and drop it in into plastic containers called “lugs.” When filled, the thirty-five pound yellow boxes dot the vineyard waiting to be placed on a tractor bed and taken to the winery. In the case of white grapes, the fruit is destemmed and crushed by machine, and the slurry poured into large presses. Over the course of two to three hours, the juice is gently pressed from the grapes and then pumped into stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. The dried raisin-like remains are discarded, or better yet, taken to compost piles to be used as vineyard fertilizer the following year.

grapes1About a month later, the red grapes are gathered in. Here the difference between making white and red wine is most evident. The reds are destemmed and then gently crushed, just as the whites. But, as opposed to pressing the white grapes and tossing the skins and pulp away, red wine is produced by fermenting the entire mixture of juice, skins and pulp together. This slurry, called “must,” is how red wine achieves its color and tannic backbone, key elements enabling it to age longer than a white.

In a completely natural environment, grape juice will begin fermentation on its own. However, intermingled with the beneficial natural yeasts that cling to the waxy substance on the grapes, there often lurks nasty yeasts that will take the wine to places we don’t won’t it to go; unless of course, you have a preference for wine that smells like a barnyard, or worse. To prevent this possible contamination, most wine today is made using commercial wine yeasts. These are natural yeast that are isolated and cloned for winery use worldwide. These catalysts are created to emphasize an array of aromatic and flavor profiles and quickly and safely turn the precious juice into clean, flavorful wine.

tanksAnother important distinction between white and red fermentations is temperature. White wine is fermented between fifty-five to sixty-five degrees to help retain aroma and flavor, while red wine is powered to dryness at up to ninety degrees to extract as much color and tannin as possible. The whites can take four weeks to ferment while the reds often become wine in less than a week.

Once the juice has been safely transformed into wine, the aging process begins. The wine contains large amounts of dead yeast cells and other debris. These materials begin to slowly precipitate out of the wine through the force of gravity. Periodically each tank or barrel of wine will be “racked,” a process of pumping the wine off the settled debris, or “lees.”

Slowly, over a period of months, the wine begins to clarify. Eventually, white wine is “fined.” This process involves adding an agent to the wine, such as a high quality powdered clay, that acts like Velcro, pulling the final particles out of suspension and leaving a clear wine. Today, many winemakers do not fine their reds but simply let time clarify them since the aging process for the reds is much longer than for whites.

Throughout the aging process, pH, acidity, residual sugar and other vital markers are regularly monitored and adjusted as needed. One additive that causes concern among some wine drinkers is the use of sulfur dioxide as a disinfectant. Sulfur has been used for hundreds of years to protect wine from microbial infections. If it was not widely employed, most wine could not survive for more than a year or so. If you are concerned about the use of sulfur dioxide in wine, consider that a package of dried fruit contains up to twenty times the amount of sulfur than a bottle of wine. It is also found in a variety of other foods, such as fruit juices, lunchmeats, jams and baking supplies. Thank heaven for sulfur.

The distinction between whites and reds continues when it comes to the bottling. Unlike red wine that benefits from extended aging for up to twenty-four months, the whites are normally bottled young. The converted juice of white grapes hanging in the vineyard in August might well be resting on a wine shop shelf the following May. Young, fresh and exuberant, that’s how we like our whites.

As the wines mature, another critical process comes into play-blending bench trials. This is a procedure the winemaker may employ to produce the best wine. While some wines are not blended-more often whites-many of today’s reds and some whites are a blend of two or more wines. Blending can increase the wine’s complexity, flavor, mouthfeel and depth. Much effort goes into evaluating which blends take a wine to a higher level of enjoyment. The culmination of the bench trials reinforces the truism that the whole is greater than sum of its individual parts.

Finally, the day arrives when all the effort to create a gold medal winner must go into the bottle. In Virginia, many wineries employ a contracted mobile bottling line, built into an eighteen-wheeler rig, to perform the actual bottling. While it is the completion of the winemaker’s art, most find it the least enjoyable part of the process. The equipment is complicated and susceptible to mechanical failure. Combined with the physical demands of lugging hoses, forklifting cases of bottles and stacking the finished wine in tight warehouse quarters, the entire winery staff is most happy when they see the bottling rig hit second gear and leave the property.

horsesMost wineries in our state offer tours along with their tastings. If you have not availed yourself of this educational experience, you are missing an opportunity to bring the art of winemaking alive. To stroll around a wine cellar and have your guide explain the intriguing process of making wine is to better understand the dedication involved in taking the grape from the vine to the wine.

Published on June 25, 2009  in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES