Humans have been making wine for at least 8,000 years. And while techniques have evolved, tastes have changed, and new regions have emerged over time, the raw ingredients and chemical processes have more or less remained the same.
After all, wine is just fermented grape juice. What separates the decent bottles from the collector-worthy ones is a combination of environmental factors (climate, slope, terroir) and the many decisions that producers make. Learning about the skill and artistry that goes into the process will only heighten your appreciation for what’s in your glass.
A brief (and certainly non-exhaustive) overview of how wine is made.
In the Vineyard
A grape’s timeline begins in the spring when clusters of flowers begin to form. These flowers grow seeds that swell and turn into small, hard grapes. In mid-summer, the ripening process (often referred to as véraison) begins, and as temperatures heat up, the grapes continue ripening, and important qualities like sugar, acid, tannins, aromas and flavors develop. Once the grower decides it’s time to pluck the fruit, the grapes are harvested by hand or machine and transported to the winery. Choosing to hand harvest can reduce a winery’s carbon footprint and is also implemented at steep vineyards where the use of machines is difficult.
Organic and biodynamic winemakers tend to their vines and till the soil without the use of synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. Instead, they turn to nature’s little helpers for support. Sheep can be used for lawn “mowing” and natural fertilizer, falcons and ducks for pest control, and horses for plowing the soil without compressing it and suppressing weed growth. Other techniques like cover crops help nourish the soil without the use of toxic chemicals.
The environment is also instrumental in the development of a wine’s complexity and flavor profile, which is why some regions of the world are conducive to winemaking while others are not (all wine regions fall between 30 and 50 degrees latitude). Everything from latitude and altitude to soil and water sources (seas, rivers, fog) come together to form a place’s unique terroir. This is why a Sauvignon Blanc grape grown in Napa Valley tastes differently than the same grape from the Loire Valley. Climate change has also had a major impact on the wine world, leading to increased average temperatures and causing extreme weather events like drought, frost and hail.
In the Winery
Once the grapes arrive at the winery, they are crushed. Grape skins are split and the juices released. For white wine, the grapes are pressed and separated from their skins, and the juice is transported to stainless steel or barrels for fermentation. For red wine, the skins stay on during fermentation and then are drained and pressed afterward. And for the majority of rosé wines, the skins stay on for a short period, which is why you get a pink hue.
From there, a wine undergoes fermentation, a process in which yeast—which can be commercial-grade or found naturally on grape skins—feeds on sugar and produces alcohol, carbon dioxide gas and heat. Fermentation usually stops on its own when there’s no more sugar left for the yeast to convert, which results in a dry wine somewhere between 11.5% to 16% ABV.
Once alcoholic fermentation is complete, the wine is stored or matured prior to bottling. While most wines are stored for less than a year, others can be matured longer to develop the wine’s characteristics. If the wine is put in stainless steel or concrete, no flavor will be added to the wine. This can be especially useful for highly aromatic varieties (like Riesling) where adding oaky notes can be off-putting. If the wine is stored and matured in oak barrels, it can imbue notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg into the finished product.
Other decisions a winemaker can make include tinkering with malolactic conversion, a process in which temperature-sensitive bacteria transform malic acid into lactic acid, giving way to softer, more buttery flavors. For particularly challenging vintages, winemakers can also increase the level of sugar or acid in a wine, a practice that is not always accepted in biodynamic winemaking.
As you can see, winemaking is no easy feat—it’s equal parts skill, intuition and vision. Hopefully this knowledge of the process will give you a greater appreciation for your favorite bottle. To learn more about the rigors of sustainable winemaking, save your spot in VIVANT’s Organic and Biodynamic Experience.