The Wine Making Process Simplified

The Wine Making Process Simplified

There’s no doubt that the wine making process can be a bit complex. There are all kinds of decisions to make regarding varietals, yeast strain, and additives. However, the actual process of how wine is made can be understood in relatively simple terms. It’s important that you have a working knowledge of this process because everything we as winemakers do is to facilitate this process. We can build on this basic understanding over time, diving into more and more details along the way. The Simplified Wine Making Process After a lot of reading and research I’ve been able to boil this process down to a very easy to understand equation. Here is how wine is made: Grape Juice + Yeast – Oxygen = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide We’ll break this down into more detail in time but this is the essence of the wine making process. The Left Side On the left side of the equation the first two terms are grape juice and yeast. Combining these, as you know, is what gets fermentation started. These marvelous little creatures digest the sugar in the grape juice and produce the products on the right side of the equation, alcohol and carbon dioxide. That is, if and only if all of the oxygen is removed from the system. The yeast consume the oxygen as they build their population so we need some oxygen in there to begin with. However, as long as there is oxygen in the must the yeast will produce water and carbon dioxide. I don’t know about you but from where I’m sitting alcohol sounds much better than watery grape juice. Thus, in order to produce alcohol the yeast must be cut off from all sources of oxygen. This is part of the reason we store wine in airtight containers during fermentation. Keeping air out not only keeps unwanted micro-organisms out of our wine, it prevents oxygen from entering the system and allowing the yeast to go back to producing water. Another thing we are tasked with is making sure that only the yeast we choose is able ferment our must. We don’t want just any yeast making our wine, nor do we want spoilage micro-organisms in there making a mess. This is why we add sulfites just prior to inoculating the yeast. We’re setting the stage for the yeast to totally dominate the wine making process as shown above. The Right Side On the right side of the equation we have the by-products of fermentation. In reality there are many bi-products of the wine making process. Much more than alcohol and carbon dioxide as shown here. However, alcohol and carbon dioxide are produced in the greatest volume which is why they’ve been singled out here. As you know the alcohol is the most desirable by-product when making wine. It’s what makes wine wine after all. The carbon dioxide we can do without which is why we have to go through all the trouble of degassing the wine. Carbon dioxide left in the wine can produce off flavors and be generally unpleasant in wines that should have been still. The...

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Bottle Aging Wine

Once bottled wine needs to be stored in optimal conditions to preserve its life and keep it tasting as wonderful as possible. The three factors affecting wine being aged in a bottle are temperature, light, and humidity (depending on your closure). Red vs White Wine Bottle Aging Red wines benefit the most from long term aging because of the tannins. Over time the tannins join together and form long chains. This smooths out the wine and gives it that silky smooth mouthfeel only an aged red has. Some of the tannin chains get so long they precipitate out, giving the wine a mature feel.   White wines are not usually bottle aged very long. There are exceptions to this, however, most white wines are meant to be consumed within three years or so. Champagne is a notable exception to this rule. Temperature Ideally wine should be stored at 55 deg F. This slows the micro-oxygenation process down and allows the wine to mature gradually. Warmer temperatures speed up the aging process. In theory you could simulate a 100 years of bottle aging by storing it at 80 deg F, however it doesn’t quite work out this nicely. You miss out on all the long chain tannins and the aging process is so abrupt that the wine doesn’t mature as much as it just goes bad. If you can’t store your wine at 55 deg F at least store it as cool as you can. Not all of us have underground cellars or refrigerators for bottle aging wine though. Realize that your wine may have a shorter shelf life if you can’t keep it that cold. Light Wine should be stored in a nice dark place. Ultra-violate light from the sun or florescent lights can damage wine as much as heat can. Darker bottles do help protect wine from these rays, however, if you’re planning on bottle aging a wine for years and years it needs to completely protected from UV light. Humidity Cork closures require a specific range of humidity for long term storage. When corks dry out due to a lack of humidity they shrink and can leak or be pushed out of the bottle entirely. If your storage area has too much humidity your corks can grow mold and introduce nasty flavors to your wine. Keep your cork enclosed wine between 55 and 75% humidity to avoid drying of the cork as well as growing mold. If this isn’t something you can manage you may want to consider going with a synthetic cork or screw cap to avoid the issue altogether. You probably already know this but you should be storing wine enclosed with natural corks on their side. This prevents the cork from drying out from the inside. This is not an issue with synthetic corks or screw caps. Pay attention to these three factors and you can expect great results. Let any one of these get out of hand and your wine could be ruined. Not All Wines Age Gracefully Aging wine is a science. Certain characteristics must be present in your wine for it...

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Bottling Wine

Bottling is the final step in the wine making process that requires any  effort on your part. After this time takes care of the rest. The major considerations when bottling are what kind of bottle to use, type of closure, and to add gas or not. Bottles The type of bottle you use is completely up to you. A bottle’s shape does not impact the taste or life of your wine in any way. Typically red wines are bottled in dark green bottles to prevent UV exposure which can accelerate the aging process. If you keep your red wines in a dark “cellar” like environment light will not be an issue and you can use whatever color strikes you as awesome. White wines are typically contained in clear bottles as they are not aged nearly as long as red wines are for the most part. More on this in the bottle aging step. Closures A closure is a fancy term for whatever you use to seal your bottles. Most wineries us a cork, synthetic cork, or screw cap. There has been a raging debate arguing the ups and downs of each type of closure. We’ll briefly touch on them here. Natural Cork Being both natural and the historical closure of choice natural cork is a good choice. A benefit to natural cork is its ability to let in tiny amounts of oxygen. The small amount of oxygen allows for “micro-oxygenation”, an essential part of long term bottle aging. Natural corks have a few drawbacks worth mentioning however. Poorly made corks can deteriorate and leave your wine “corked” (tasting like moldy cork). Even the highest quality cork producers wind up making a few duds. Once a wine is corked there’s nothing you can do about it. Another draw back is corks that leak. Some corks have a little channel that on the side of the cork that allows wine to leak out. You can’t always see these defects in a cork prior to bottling so it’s a risk you must take to use cork. Synthetic Cork Today’s synthetic corks are getting much more sophisticated than the old petroleum based ones you used to see in the 90’s. Synthetic corks don’t deteriorate, nor do they have a tendency to leak. Many synthetic corks do not allow for micro-oxygenation. They seal very well. This is fine for a wine you intend to consume within three years or so. Any longer and you’ll want natural cork. Some synthetic corks are designed to allow for micro-oxygenation but they haven’t been in use long enough to say for sure how they compare to natural cork. Screw Caps The latest closure on the scene is the screw cap. Largely thought to be a sign of cheap wine these closures are starting to take hold even in more expensive wineries. Proponents of screw caps site the lack of spoiled wine due to bad corks among their chief benefits. Screw caps also aren’t likely to let loose if checked in airline baggage as a cork can. On the other hand screw caps don’t allow for micro-oxygenation as a...

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Stabilizing Wine

Closely related to the clarifying wine, is stabilizing it. Many of the same methods used for clarifying wine are also used to stabilize it, with a few additions. What is an unstable wine? By unstable we mean that the wine is susceptible to spoilage. The most common causes of spoilage are oxidation, unintentional second fermentations, and excess protein. Spoiled wine may taste old and weak in the case of oxidation. Otherwise spoiled wine may take on a rancid or rotting flavor profile. None of these are the least bit desireable. Except for oxidation spoilage mainly occurs due to uninvited micro-organisms. These organisms may have come in with the fruit or may have stuck around on a piece of equipment that didn’t get sanitized quite well enough. How to Stabilize Wine There are different stabilization methods for different types of spoilage. The simplest forms of stabilization being racking and filtering. Both serve to remove undesired yeasts and other micro-organisms. Additionally, there are any number of chemicals that can be used to kill off these organisms so that there’s not a party in your wine after you’ve bottled it. For example sulfur-dioxide is used to kill of yeast cells to prevent a second fermentation. Bentonite is used to remove excess protein (also known as hot stablization). Cold stabilization is when you reduce the temperature of your wine to nearly its freezing point to purposefully form tartrate crystals you can then remove through racking. These harmless crystals form when tartaric acid precipitates out of the wine. They have no effect on the flavor but they can put people off because they look like broken glass. Oxidized wine, however, is permanently ruined. There’s no reversing the effects of too much oxygen so be sure everything is tightly sealed during the aging process. What Methods Should I Use? The method of stabilization you use on your wine depends largely on what issues you’re facing. By in large the best preventative stabilization method is the addition of sulfur-dioxide(SO2). Whether introduced as a gas or in tablet form this chemical kills off yeast, malolactic bacteria, and many other micro-organisms. Adding SO2 should be part of your wine making process. Aging your wine prior to bottling will give many stability issues time to show their faces. You don’t want to find out you’ve got stability issues after you’ve bottled. Any treatments after bottling will take a lot of work and introduce far too much oxygen. If your wine is getting cloudy or tartrate crystals are forming its time to start clarifying and stabilizing. Start out by racking and, if you’re through all your fermentations, add SO2. In the case of tartrate crystals cool your wine to near its freezing point and rack it. After any clarification or stabilization treatments give it more time to see what happens. You may need to do more than one stabilization. Being able to see your wine is a key element here. Aging in oak barrels can make it hard to tell what’s going on. Careful inspection with a wine thief and your test kits is your best bet. Lastly, taste your wine before bottling. In...

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Clarifying Wine

At this point your wine has aged a bit and its time to start thinking about bottling. However, before we’re ready for that we need to take care of a few things. First is clarifying the wine. No one wants to drink a cloudy or chunky-style wine. It looks bad and even if it tastes great people’s first impression will be that your wine is off somehow. Why else would it look like that (they might think)? What Makes Wine Cloudy? A cloudy wine has suspended particles in it due to the chemical reactions that took place during fermentation. Like magnets the suspended particles have either a positive or negative charge. Having too many particles of a single charge (all positive for example) prevents them from settling down at the bottom as they repel each other and remain floating around. If left alone most wines will eventually clear up through racking. Also, over time the positive particles find negative particles, fall in love, and make a home for themselves on the bottom of the carboy. There are times though when a wine just won’t clarify on its own. At this point you’ll need to clarify (or fine) your wine with a fining agent of some kind. Clarifying Your Wine In order to get all those suspended particles out of your wine and on the bottom you’ll need to add a chemical that can bond with the particles making them neutral in charge so they become heavy enough to settle down. There are many methods to choose from. Over the past millenia there have been many different fining agents used to clarify a wine. To name a few of the more odd ones: bull’s blood, isinglass (from fish bladders), and clay. How nasty does that sound?!? Today there are chemicals available so you can avoid having to draw blood from your bull. Namely bentonite and gelatin. Aside from chemicals you can clarify your wine through filtration as well. It takes a special filter that is fine enough to catch stray yeast cells and other microbial organisms. The drawback to this method is that the filter can remove precious flavor nuances and that’s the last thing we want. Mondavi’s Method After a lot of research I found that most of the top quality wine makers use egg whites to fine their wine. Pros including Robert Mondavi use this method as one of the corner stones of making his white wines. If it’s good enough for Mondavi it’ll probably do for us too. The recipe is simple, using the egg whites, of course, and some salt. Once the recipe has been concocted you merely mix it well into your wine and give it some time. The egg whites bond with the tiny particles, making them heavy enough to sink to the bottom. After Clarifying As soon as your wine is clear you need to rack it off of the settled particles. I cannot stress enough how careful you need to be during this racking. The particles that were so hard to settle out are quite easily stirred back up again. Should this happen you’ll likely...

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