The Wine Making Process
I remember the first time I went out to a vineyard. It looked out over the Aosta Valley in northern Italy, a full on panoramic view. It was just awesome. First thought I had was how great it’d be to work here! At the time I was just finishing an internship at an office in Bristol and chalk and cheese doesn’t even come into it. The grass was most definitely greener over there.
It was only later on I realised the catch. Winemaking is a full on job. Certain times of the year you’re looking at 14 hour days, 7 days a week, for weeks on end. You’ve got one harvest, one chance per year to get it right, the pressure is on all the time. Of course the intensity varies between producers and times of year, and working outside in 30 degree summers isn’t too shabby, but you get the point; it’s a tough job.
So after I posted the last blog (The Only Puppy In The Village 5/6/13) I sort of regretted the ordering I’d published in. I thought it’d be a good idea to do a quick post on the wine making process. Main reason I guess is that it’ll help with explanations later on down the line, but also hopefully it’ll make it about a bit more than just a bottle of wine. Lots of work went into putting that bottle of wine on the shelf.
Well obviously it all starts with the vines that grow the grapes…
It’s the same deal for any fruit plant. Find the right spot, get it the water, nutrients, sunlight etc it needs, and keep an eye on it for a few months. There are all kinds of jobs that need doing in terms of pruning, tying, and so on, for the reason of controlling how many bunches of grapes you want to produce.
I don’t want to get stuck on this point, but roughly the more grapes you produce (this gets called the yield) the more volume of wine you produce, but chances are it’ll be less interesting stuff as the flavours are spread across more grapes. So yield management is the massive part of this phase. Big brand wines producing lots of bottles for mass markets will keep yields high letting them sell lots of decent, but not great, wine at lower prices.
Anyway, back on it. So, you’ve got your vines…
We’re getting into late spring and the bunches are starting to form. The job here is to make sure the grapes thrive and then survive to ripening in late summer. So as much as you’re trying to get the water, nutrients, warmth, and sunlight to the bunches, you’re also looking to keep pests and diseases under control. The main variable over this time is the weather. Too much or too little of one kind of weather pattern and you make or break the year.
So we’re now in September(ish) time…
Hopefully you’ve got a desired yield of beautifully ripened bunches of grapes. Now you need to harvest them pretty quick. This is when the hours get long and nerves get frayed a bit. Picking the right time to harvest and doing as quickly as possible is another huge part of the year.
Depending on where your vineyards are you can machine harvest, but given I’ve only ever seen harvesting on sloping hills, I’ve only ever seen hand picking. That is a tough job, especially given the time pressure, and even once they’re picked the stress doesn’t end there.
Once picked, you need to get the grapes fermenting as quickly as possible…
Grapes are processed (mostly by hand) on sorting tables to weed out the undesirables and then sent to the press. The plan here is to burst the skins, and get the juices out. It’s here you need to split between white, rosé, and red wines.
Let’s start with white wines…
Skins and stalks contain the colour and tannin (drying compound that adds body) in grapes, and white wines don’t want this. The skins and stalks are discarded and the juice is fermented in huge stainless steel tanks at low temperatures to get the yeast working on the sugars to turn it into alcohol, whilst also protecting the fruit aromas. This takes a couple of weeks.
For red wines…
…you want the colour and the tannin. So you crush grapes, then ferment with the skins, and then press afterwards. The wine is kept moving all the time to make sure the skins are getting maximum exposure. Again it varies, but this’ll take around 2 weeks. Most rosés are made along the lines of the red wine method, but the skins are removed much earlier so they add only a bit of colour.
There’s one big decision left before bottling…
Wines often have a bit of time to mature in barrels or tanks before bottling. This let’s the wine settle a bit and develop its flavor properly. This could be done for a few weeks or a number of years. It could be done in stainless steel tanks that add no flavour, or in wooden barrels that add distinct extra tastes to the final product.
…then it’s time to pop it into bottles and ship it out. Job done.
It’s a long year, with quite a few big decisions to make during it. If you ever get a chance, try and go to a vineyard area. Most producers round the world are pretty easy in terms of showing you round if you call first. It’s a lot easier to follow by seeing it rather than reading about it. They’re also great places to go spend some time, with sunshine and wine.
Could be worse.