How is Wine Made?
Wine is essentially just fermented fruit juice. The recipe for turning fruit into wine goes something like this:
- Pick a large quantity of ripe grapes from grapevines.
You could substitute raspberries or any other fruit, but 99.9 percent of all the wine in the world is made from grapes, because grapes make the best wines.
- Put the grapes into a clean container that doesn’t leak.
- Crush the grapes somehow to release their juice.
Once upon a time, feet performed this step.
In its most basic form, winemaking is that simple. After the grapes are crushed, yeasts (tiny one-celled organisms that exist naturally in the vineyard and, therefore, on the grapes) come into contact with the sugar in the grapes’ juice and gradually convert that sugar into alcohol. Yeasts also produce carbon dioxide, which evaporates into the air. When the yeasts are done working, your grape juice is wine. The sugar that was in the juice is no longer there — alcohol is present instead. (The riper and sweeter the grapes, the more alcohol the wine will have.) This process is called fermentation.
Fermentation is a totally natural process that doesn’t require man’s participation at all, except to put the grapes into a container and release the juice from the grapes. Fermentation occurs in fresh apple cider left too long in your refrigerator, without any help from you. We read that even milk, which contains a different sort of sugar than grapes do, develops a small amount of alcohol if left on the kitchen table all day long.
Speaking of milk, Louis Pasteur is the man credited with discovering fermentation in the 19th century. That’s discovering, not inventing. Some of those apples in the Garden of Eden probably fermented long before Pasteur came along. (Well, we don’t think it could have been much of an Eden without wine!)
Now if every winemaker actually made wine in as crude a manner as we just described, we’d be drinking some pretty rough stuff that would hardly inspire us to write a book about wine. But today’s winemakers have a bag of tricks as big as a sumo wrestler’s appetite, which is one reason no two wines ever taste exactly the same.
- The men and women who make wine can control the type of container they use for the fermentation process (stainless steel and oak are the two main materials) as well as the size of the container and the temperature of the juice during fermentation — and every one of these choices can make a real difference in the taste of the wine.
- After fermentation, winemakers can choose how long to let the wine mature (a stage when the wine sort of gets its act together) and in what kind of container. Fermentation can last three days or three months, and the wine can then mature for a couple of weeks or a couple of years or anything in between. (If you have trouble making decisions, don’t ever become a winemaker.)
Obviously, one of the biggest factors in making one wine different from the next is the nature of the raw material, the grape juice. Besides the fact that riper, sweeter grapes make a more alcoholic wine, different varieties of grapes (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot, for example) make different wines. Grapes are the main ingredient in wine, and everything the winemaker does, he does to the particular grape juice he has.
Of course, grapes don’t grow in a void. Where they grow — the soil and climate of each wine region, as well as the traditions and goals of the people who grow the grapes and make the wine — affects the nature of the ripe grapes and the taste of the wine made from those grapes. That’s why so much of the information about wine revolves around the countries and regions where wine is made.