Thousands of years ago, winemaking was an inventive solution for preserving fruit that would otherwise spoil. Today, surprisingly little has changed other than the how and the why.
We still harvest grapes from vineyards, ferment the juice to convert sugar into alcohol, and bottle it to enjoy later. But the winemaking process of today is filled with calculated and innovative decisions resulting in history’s most enjoyable (and commercially successful) wines.
Tradition, technology, consumer demand, and even politics have created countless variations on these steps, and there are exceptions to every rule, but here’s are the basics to get your juices flowing.
Step One: Harvest
The growing season of a grapevine starts in spring, continues through several months of unpredictable growing conditions, and concludes with the harvest of ripe grapes in the fall. It’s the role of a vineyard manager to guide the vines through whatever conditions arise to produce the balance of natural sugar, acidity, and minerals that the winemaker needs in the fruit.
Step Two: Crushing
The next step (sometimes literally) is to crush the grapes, separating the juices from the solids. Ultimately, the juice becomes the wine, and the solids are all filtered out. Depending on the grape, the solids of the grape might be left to ferment with the juice.
Step Three: Fermentation
With the addition of yeast, the process of fermentation begins. The yeast converts the natural sugar in the grape juice to alcohol over the course of around 2-3 weeks, depending on the winemaker’s chosen method.
Fermentation can look completely different depending on how alcoholic, intense, colorful, fruity, zippy, or sweet the wine should be.
Step Four: Aging
Following the fermentation process, the wine is sealed and left to age in a temperature-controlled environment. Much of a wine’s flavor depends the duration of aging and the material of the container itself.
The two most common types of vessel for aging wine are stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. In the case of steel, the natural flavors of the wine develop on their own, and the result is often a crisp and light wine. Oak barrels, on the other hand, flavor the wine as it ages and allow for small amounts of oxygen to pass through, which slowly mellows out the intensity of a wine while concentrating its flavors.
Step Five: Bottling
Every few months, winemakers will sample an aging wine to judge its readiness. Some wines age for only a few months, but more complex wines might age for a few years before a winemaker deems them ready to bottle.
But once they do, it’s on to you!