Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Vinification 101 Explained

It’s funny because for a while I refused to be on Instagram, until I realized that wineries put pictures and stories there and some of them were about the different steps in vinification. These were about people sorting grapes, crushing grapes, fermenting tanks full of foam... etc.. To see the whole process of how wine was made, really amused me! I wanted to see and learn more and I thought you might like to read about this too. How does it all happen? How do we go from grapes to wine? So, I will try to explain it, as simply as possible how white, rosé and red are made. 

Every producer will recognize that the first step to make great wine is to have great grapes. Indeed you can make horrible wine from good grapes but if the grapes are not at optimal ripeness, chances are, is going to be very difficult for you to make a good wine. I guess is true what they say “a great wine is born in the vineyard”. But let’s imagine that we do have great grapes. The first step, once these are brought to the winery, will be to sort them out, now with fine wine producers, Sorting (Triage in French) happens by hand, making sure any rotten or mildew affected grapes are put aside to avoid off aromas and flavors in the final product.
Sometimes, producers include some of the stems in the blend, they use these to add a bit more tannin to the recipe. If they decide not to do this, they will be discarded, then the second step will be Crushing and Pressing of the grapes, in the case of whites, the wine will be fermented without skins, to ferment just the free-run juice. In the case of reds, we need the skins, since they provide color and tannins to the wine, so the pressing will take place after fermentation and maceration. Crushing needs to be done very gently, so the pressure will be very soft and gradual. 

Keep in mind that to prevent fruit oxidation, much needed sulfur is added before crushing and pressing.

Before the magic of Fermentation begins, some winemakers adjust the must, for example if the must doesn’t have enough acidity, like it happens in warm climates, they will add acid. On the contrary if the wine doesn’t have enough sugar, then, they will chaptalize: meaning they will add beet sugar to the must so that the wines can reach a minimum of alcohol. Keep in mind that 17 grams of sugar are required to obtain 1% of alcohol.

In order for the yeasts (fungi) to start eating the sugar in the grapes, some warmth and oxygen exposure are needed, since these will allow them to multiply easily and do their job: turning the juice into wine! It is known that in cool climates, like in Burgundy, is necessary to heat up the cellars to kick start the fermentation.  

Yeasts can be wild, usually found on skin grapes or in the wineries, associated with human activities, on insects and winemaking material or Lab created (selected wine yeasts) used to optimize varietal character and to give winemakers more control over the fermentation than what they would normally have if the fermentation was spontaneous. Wild yeasts will start the fermentation right away but die when the must reaches about 4º alcohol, the fermentation then continues with Lab created yeasts, completing the cycle and usually dying naturally when the wine reaches 15º alcohol or after they eat all of the sugar, dying for lack of nutrients. Fermentation can be halted using different methods too, by chilling the wine, by filtering it to remove the yeasts, by adding alcohol/brandy like in port/sherry, since yeasts can’t survive in a high alcoholic habitat. 

In the case of reds, Fermentation happens with skins, heat will help extract color, macerations can last from 6 days or longer, but it is important that the juice is stirred, this could be done with rotary fermenters, or by pumping over with hoses that move the wine from the bottom of the vat to the top. Because of the C02, the skins create a crust on top of the liquid, which has to be broken and stirred, this is known in French as Pigeage, it’s necessary to break it to maximize extraction and get an even color in the wine. In the case of whites, no skins or stems will be present in the fermentation, sometimes and just to give more flavor to the wine, there will be a short cold maceration with skins (this is done most often in the New World), to impart flavor but no color. In the case of rosé, the maceration is very brief/shorter, sometimes for few hours and no longer than two days, will be enough to get their pinkish color. 

Now, Fermentation produces alcohol, heat and C02. Fermentation temperatures are controlled to make sure the final product has fruity aromas and flavors, this is possible thanks to the use of stainless steel vats with cooling coils. Rosé and whites are made at lower temperatures than reds: 15-20ºC/ 59-68ºF vs 20-35ºC 68-95ºF respectively. In Europe, both red and white fermentations happen at higher temperatures, sometimes this is done on purpose so that the wine has more mineral, earthy and herbal flavors. In the New World because the wines are usually fruitier, fermentations happen at lower temperatures. 

Once the primary fermentation is completed, then comes the Malolactic Fermentation (secondary fermentation) where malic acid is converted to softer lactic acid, that means for you a more soft and drinkable wine. It always happens for reds, but it is optional for whites, since sometimes the winemaker's intent here is to keep their refreshing acidity. Malolactic can happen in the vats or in oak. Though most fermentations happen in stainless steel, some choose to ferment in epoxy containers that don’t impart flavors, in old oak barrels or in new barrels, in that case the heat of the fermentation will leach the new oak flavor even more, seasoning the wine in a very special way.  

Now regarding Aging, a wine can be aged in oak, in stainless steel vats and in bottle. In the case of delicate grapes such as Pinot Noir, usually second or third year oak (used) will be used to impart a kiss of oak to the wine, but not so much that overpowers it. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tannat, Nebbiolo, can tolerate new oak better, and actually will reach new heights with aging in new barrels. The barrels may be from Slavonia, France (Alliers or Limousin) or America. Each will impart a different flavor. 

French oak is probably used in the best of wines. Oak flavors will vary according to the toasting inside of the barrel, which could be light, medium or dark. 
Once the wine has aged (in Europe, the length is usually set by law). The wine is fined or filtered and then bottled for release.  Now, the difference between Fining and filtering is something that critics argue about, most prefer fining, since it removes less compounds from wine, fining is done by transferring wine from barrel to barrel (Racking) and by using bentonite, isinglass or egg whites, all elements that attract undesirable particles floating in wine, helping them to precipitate to the bottom of the barrel, also known as Clarification.  

Filtering is done by using machines that strip undesired particles, some of which have very fine membranes (similar to a fine colander). Critics say that filtering, though makes the wine more chemically stable, also strips it from delicious particles/ personality and consider wines that are not filtered a very good thing. You probably have seen it on labels before, when a producer puts “unfiltered” and wondered what it all meant. You usually will have to decant these wines, since unfiltered ones tend to have more sediments. The final step in vinification is the Bottling and Labeling and off to be sold and consumed, unless some aging in bottle is required by law (like in Rioja and Barolo for example). 
So there you have it!
Cheers! Silvina  
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