What Is Wine?

What have you, been living under a rock?! Maybe you’ve just turned 18? I’m not even going to be naïve and say 21. All right, I get it…sometimes we need a little high-level refresher course on the things we love the most, so here we go!

Wine is an ancient beverage that has become one of the most popular adult beverages to drink in modern times. By official Oxford Dictionary definition, wine is an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice. While each country has their own standards, here in the US it is legally defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau as having a minimum of 7% alcohol by volume (ABV) and a maximum of 24% ABV. You can, of course, make wine from fruit other than grapes…but legally there must be a qualifier so you know what the base is if it’s anything other than grapes. So it would say “apple wine” if it’s wine made from apples, for example, but we’re going to stick to the classic today and just focus on good ‘ole wine made from grapes. The United States leads the world in wine consumption and is fourth in wine production behind Italy, France and Spain. Everywhere you go these days, someone is shouting Rosé All Day or bringing you a big, bold red (anyone, anyone? C’mon…where’s my glass of red?! Hold on a minute). So we figured since we’re all enjoying it so much, let’s make sure we understand it so we can appreciate it even more and ask the right questions to find new favorites as we’re exploring with craft producers…

The Winemaking Process

So now that we got the technical stuff out of the way, how exactly do we turn grapes into wine? Let’s break down the process and go into each key step at a high level for our quick “crush course” on wine (sorry, I couldn’t help myself):

grape clusters being trimmed off a vine

Harvest

While picking grapes may seem pretty straightforward this is honestly one of the most important phases in the winemaking process…when exactly to pick the grapes! Typically all grapes are harvested around the same time of year in each region (late summer/early fall in the CA wine regions in the United States, for example), but the exact date can have a pretty major impact on your final wine. The timing of the pick depends on the grape variety, the weather of that year and the brix level. Brix is a term for the measurement of sugar in grapes, which also relates to how high in alcohol the resulting wine may be (more sugar = more alcohol potential!). If you pick grapes earlier, the brix and resulting alcohol will be lower, the acid will be higher and you may have more “green” flavors and tannins. If those same, exact grapes are picked later they will have a higher brix/alcohol potential, lower acid and more ripe fruit flavors with softer tannins. As I said…this is pretty critical stuff to get right! So come harvest season you’ll see the vineyard workers testing the brix often to make sure they don’t miss the perfect window for exactly what they’re hoping to create.

grapes being fermented in a stainless steel tank

Fermentation

This is where the magic begins! Fermentation is simply the transformation of sugars into alcohol caused by the presence of yeast. But where does the yeast come from? Well, many minimalist winemakers prefer to rely on ambient yeast…or yeast that is naturally present on the grapes themselves, in the wine cellars and in the fermentation rooms. Winemakers more focused on terroir and natural winemaking often prefer using ambient yeast, but the downside to letting ambient yeast run the show is that it’s quite a bit more unpredictable. While that can often lead to highly unique and amazing wines, it can also lead to some less desirable characteristics or in the worst-case scenario, spoilage. The other, more predictable approach is to use cultured yeasts that are specifically created for winemaking. So once we’ve figured our yeast out, the clusters of grapes, seeds and stems get put into a giant fermentation tank. As this starts to get mixed and crushed up a little the mixture of the grape solids (or pomace) and juice that is starting to form is called the must. The must and the yeast start to come into contact and happy times are starting to happen!

During fermentation, the winemaker has to decide on how much they want to control the temperature, how long to let the must ferment and how long to leave the skin in contact with the juice (or how long to allow maceration). While all three of these variables are hugely important, the last one is the one you’ll notice the most in the glass you’re sipping from. The skins are where the tannins live. And tannins are what cause that tart, somewhat bitter, dry out your mouth sensation that you sometimes find in bigger reds. Tannins are also found in tea…so when you let your tea bag steep too long and your tea gets bitter? Tannins! While many people think that all reds are tannic it really has to do with the grape variety and the maceration time…so if you’re someone who has been sticking to whites and rosés for fear of tannins it’s time to start experimenting with reds specifically made to be less tannic! Don’t worry…we’ll help you out on your journey here in future articles. The Crafty Cask has your back.

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