The earliest evidence of winemaking goes back to China, around 9,000 years ago, when rice, honey, and grapes were fermented together to make wine. Of course, Europe has always been thought of as a main source of great wines, and evidence of grapes being domesticated and becoming part of agriculture may go back as far as 12,000 years, but it is unknown whether Europeans were first.
Wherever wine got its start, we can be thankful that today, wine is a widely available commodity. But that isn’t the whole story because there are many varieties of wine, and some are much more expensive than others.
So, how do you go from grapes to wine, and what causes the differences in taste, appearance, and cost? Let’s take a look below.
A Guide to Winemaking
Step 1: Choosing the Grapes
All wine starts with the grapes. The two major types are red and wine. But it’s not just the color that matters. The location that the grapes are grown, the quality of the soil, and how long they are allowed to ripen all affect the color and taste.
Grapes are harvested either by hand or machine, picked during the day or night (this also affects taste), and also include the stems and sometimes the leaves.
Step 2: Extracting the Juice
The first step before crushing takes place is to destem the grapes. From here, red and white grapes go their separate ways. White grapes are crushed to extract the juice, but the skins are sifted out. Red grapes undergo the same process, but the skins are added back to the juice. Without the skins, red wines would be closer to white wine and might be made into something like a white pinot noir.
Step 3: Fermentation
The grape juice then ferments in either wooden casks or metal vats. Fermentation begins when yeast is added, and the natural sugars in wine become alcohol. Tannins, sugars, additional yeast, dyes, and other substances can be added at this point to adjust the taste and color.
Compared to white wines, red wines are slightly more difficult to make. Because the skins are retained, they must be pushed continuously down after rising to the surface to make sure they are in constant contact with the juice.
Step 4: Aging
Aging is an important step that will affect color and taste. Aging can last a few months to several years. Primary factors that affect aging include temperature, light, and oxidation of the natural compounds in grapes (this is especially true for the skins of red grapes). Wine that is aged longer is generally thought to have a more unique or complex flavor, especially if aged in oak barrels using high-quality wood, or charring the wood before adding the grape juice.
Step 5: Bottling or Boxing
The final step is to bottle the wine, which is a process that stops fermentation by removing oxygen. Once opened, the oxygen will begin interacting with the wine and will give it a “vinegary taste.” Wine doesn’t go “bad” as the alcohol acts as a preservative, but the taste may become too unpleasant.
This is a major reason why people go with boxed varieties that seal wine in a plastic bag with a spout that reseals. You may argue that these wines aren’t as good, but they are far more affordable and keep for a long time in the fridge, especially for people that only want to drink one glass every couple of nights.
Winemaking is a unique and complicated process that, for many winemakers, is an underappreciated art. After all, we can quickly empty a whole bottle of wine in just a few hours without stopping the savor the subtle flavors and aromas that someone might have spent generations to perfect.
If you want to experience winemaking yourself to see all that goes into the processes and learn to appreciate its complexities, you can start a winery in your basement.