here are volumes on vinification and mountains of minutia when it comes to all that goes into making humanity's most influential beverage. However, every vintage includes at least these six steps:
Step #1: Picking
Ripeness occurs in the mid to late summer months and the timing of picking is essential to making great wine. Pick too early, and you'll end up with too much acid, not very much alcohol and strange flavors. Harvesting too late may make for unbalanced and flat wine.
Whites wine grapes generally ripen first, while red wine grapes tend to require more time on the vine. Grapes are harvested either by hand or machine and put into bins before crushing. Hand-harvesting is more laborious than machine-harvesting but allows harvesters to be more selective.
Step #2: Crushing
Grapes are transported to the crush pad after picking for sorting (for quality) and then placed in the destemmer which does exactly what it sounds like, takes the grapes off the stems. Usually, a destemmer also gently crushes the grapes beginning the actual winemaking process.
Crushed white wine grapes are typically sent immediately through a press to separate the juice from the grape skins. That juice is then placed in a tank for settling and "racking", which is an ongoing process through wine making. Red wine grapes are typically allowed to keep their skins during fermentation.
Step #3: Fermenting
Whether by wild yeast or yeast carefully selected by the winemaker, the process of fermentation is why we love wine: a tiny fungus turns sugar into alcohol. Winemakers must give red wines more attention during fermentation. Wine yeast also produces carbon dioxide during fermentation, causing the grape skins to rise to the top of the tank and form a "cap". The winemaker must "punch down" or "pump over" the cap many times a day to keep the skins in contact with the juice. That contact is how red wine gets it color, tannin and grape skin flavors.
"Wine is sunlight, held together by water." -Galileo Galilei
Step #4: Clarifying
Fermentation creates carbon dioxide and alcohol and the accumulation causes those by-products to become toxic to the yeast killing them off. All this activity has stirred up remaining grape particles (especially in red wine) and the yeast starts sinking to the bottom making a further mess. Red wine is now pressed off the skins and the process of racking begins. Racking is drawing the clean wine off of the mess at the bottom of the tank or barrel. This may be done more than once before filtering and may be assisted by a process called "fining", which is adding something to the wine to cause the particulate matter to fall to the bottom faster such as clay or egg whites.
Step #5: Aging
Aging wine can take place before and after bottling. It can change the flavor, add texture, improve balance and even help define a winemaker's style.
Winemakers have lots of options as well on how to age before bottling: length of time, oak or stainless steel, the degree of barrel toast, oak barrels or staves or chips, and even type of oak (Missouri, Kentucky, French, Hungarian or even a blend of these).
Step #6: Bottling
When the winemaker has decided that they have done all they can or want to do with a wine, it's time to bottle it. Many white wines are ready to bottle after only a few months but most red wines aren't ready for as long as two years from harvest.
Now that you know a little more, appreciate all the hard work that went into making what's in your glass by savoring it.
Visit a local Kansas City winery for more information on how you can be a part of their next harvest!