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Gentle Guide ➺ Winemaking

Wine. It’s a drink. Depending who you ask, it’s the drink.

We all know how the sausage gets made. Grapes grow on vines, you pick them, chuck them in a bin, someone jumps in barefoot for their foot-stomping Kodak moment, then something-something, fermentation, something-something else, wine goes into the bottle, yum. If that’s the full breadth of your winemaking knowledge, you’re probably in the majority. If you’d like to know a little more, you’ve come to the right place. If you’d like to know all there is to know, you’ve come to the wrong place. Let’s talk about it.

HARVESTING

Unlike some other fruits, grapes do not continue to ripen once picked, so vignerons choose an optimal window of ripeness often gauged by sugar content (baumé/brix) for higher potential alcohol in wine. The grapes can be picked by hand, also known as manual harvesting, or mechanically.

Picking by hand is more precise and can be more gentle on the grapes, protecting them from bruising and oxidation. Mechanical harvesting involves using a tractor-like machine that ‘straddles’ the vines, shaking the vine to agitate the fruit until it falls off and is collected in the tray below.

CRUSHING, PRESSING, AND FERMENTATION

Wines are made using either whole bunches or destemmed fruit, both requiring crushing for juice extraction - you’ve likely heard of foot-stomping, a traditional approach that works the way it sounds. Not super practicable at larger scales of production, but certainly a way to get the job done. Otherwise, machine crushers are used.

Pressing is different to crushing; pressing separates the liquid juice from the solids that remain; skins, seeds, stems. Most white wines are pressed before fermenting, reds are pressed after. Some of the liquid can be siphoned off easily (free-run), while about fifteen percent needs to be pressed to separate it, akin to wringing a sponge.
Fermentation, the alchemical heart of winemaking, works its magic by transforming sugar into the golden nectar of alcohol and CO2. But it's not just a chemical dance; it's an art form. Imagine skilled winemakers, orchestrating this symphony of flavors by selecting specific yeasts, fine-tuning temperatures, and choosing vessels like alchemists selecting their instruments.

In the fermenting cauldron, skins and seeds release tannins, while aromatic compounds evolve, and hues shift. The vessel itself, whether stainless steel, oak, concrete, or clay, adds its own unique imprint, crafting wines that sparkle with individuality. Winemakers play with the 'cap,' delicately extracting extra tannins and flavors, and masterfully control secondary reactions like malolactic fermentation, sculpting wines that delight the senses and tantalize the taste buds.
We all know how the sausage gets made. Grapes grow on vines, you pick them, chuck them in a bin, someone jumps in barefoot for their foot-stomping Kodak moment, then something-something, fermentation, something-something else, wine goes into the bottle, yum.

ÉLEVAGE & BOTTLING

There’s alcohol in it now, but it’s not typically ready to go into bottle yet. The process of getting flavours and aromas bottle ready is called élevage; essentially, the wine needs to settle and mature, as chemical reactions continue to occur naturally within the wine. The storage vessel, crucial like the stage for a play, shapes the wine's character. Red wines and some whites, like Chardonnay, often mature in oak, infusing unique flavors. Concrete or clay vessels can mellow acidity.

A good winemaker will taste the wine throughout this process, identifying any adjustments needed. At some stage in readying the wine for bottling, most winemakers choose to filter the wine, removing larger particles of sediment from the liquid. Fining agents, which bind to and remove suspended proteins are also commonly used. Some choose not to do this, preferring the flavour and texture that these inclusions offer. A wines total elevage time can be anywhere from just a few months, to multiple years.
When wine is ready to go into bottle, it’s a fairly simple process (though naturally, determining ‘readiness’ is yet another thing to be judged). After carefully controlling exposure to oxygen for the elevage period, the main consideration in bottling is minimising exposure to oxygen. Wines are typically pumped into bottles via tube; in some cases, inert gases are used to prevent oxygen interactions before corking or capping.

Another consideration is sterilisation. Any additional microbes present may cause the wine to spoil too rapidly. For this reason, many winemakers will add sulfites prior to bottling, which inhibit microbe growth. (If you’ve heard of ‘bottle-shock’, where a wine tastes a little flat right after bottling, this can be the cause, though it typically dissipates in a few weeks.)

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