We all know what wine is, right? I mean, many people drink it regularly. Well, I don’t know about you, but I drank wine for quite a while before I actually gave much thought to what it actually is and how it is made. It’s not necessary to understand the sausage-making side of wines, of course, but in my case, curiosity won out. And I do think that understanding how wine is made—even at the most rudimentary level—can add to your wine enjoyment and help you to better choose wines to drink. If you’re already a wine geek, you might want to skip to another article. If not, I hope this basic wine primer is helpful.
We all know that wine is made from grapes. So far, so good. White wine is made from white grapes and red wine is made from red grapes, correct? Well, not so fast. For starters, I’ve never seen a glass of white wine, nor white grapes. The wine we call “white” is actually usually straw or golden in color, to varying degrees. And the grapes it comes from aren’t white; rather they are usually green, yellow or greenish-yellow. Likewise, most “red” wine isn’t quite red—certainly not fire-engine red. It tends more toward purple-red or brick-red. Burgundy is the color of much red wine. The grapes red wine comes from are typically red or bluish colored.
Not all grapes are suitable for winemaking. Concord grapes make great jelly, but lousy wine. There are thousands of winemaking grapes (called varietals), but only a handful that dominate the majority of wines and the wine market. For white wines, these are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling and Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris. For reds, they are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
With few exceptions, grape juice—whether from red or white grapes—is colorless. What makes red wine red is actually the skins of the grapes, not the juice itself. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. To make wine, grapes are picked at the optimal ripeness for the type of wine being made. Sweet wines are often called “late harvest” because the grapes remain on the vine longer than, say, grapes for making Chardonnay would.
Grapes are picked, and then a mad dash to “crush” the fruit begins. In most American vineyards, this happens in late summer/early fall. The grapes are crushed—albeit gently, usually by machines—to extract the juice. The big difference between red and white wines is that reds are crushed with the skins intact (often the stems and seeds, too), while for white wines, the juice is separated from the skins. Skins and stems impart tannins and color to wine, which is why most red wines contain tannins while few whites do.
Now that we’ve crushed the grapes to get juice, it’s fermentation time—the process of converting the juice’s natural (or sometimes added) sugars and yeast to alcohol. Typically, stainless-steel vats and/or oak barrels are used to ferment the wine. Entire books are dedicated to the fermentation process, so I won’t get into that here. Fermentation can take from a few months to a few years, for more age-worthy red wines.
Once fermentation is complete, red wine is pressed off from the skins and put into barrels to age. Whites are put into barrels for aging or straight into bottles. The wines are usually, but not always, fined and/or filtered (see Wine 102, next week) before bottling. Finally, the wine is bottled, sealed and labeled. Some will be “released” (sold to the public) immediately; others—such as higher-end reds—will age in the bottle, sometimes for years, before being released.