Winemaking: what are the stages of vinification process?
20 August 2020
Every wine lover has wondered how wine is made. The winemaking process involves several crucial steps, from the grape on the vine to the drink in the bottle. Throughout the entire process of winemaking, the in-depth expertise of professionals such as the winemaker, oenologist, cellar master, sommelier and sometimes even the wine merchant is required. Each of them contributes their savoir-faire and passion to make a unique wine. This is the hallmark of great wines!
Discover the key stages of vinification to better understand how wine is made.
Winemaking starts with the harvest
As we know, grapes are the main ingredient in wine. Harvesting takes place when the fruit has reached the desired ripeness, that is, when its sugars and acidity have stabilized. This period is commonly known as the harvest season. While in Europe, the harvest begins in September or October, in the southern hemisphere it is more likely to take place around March or April.
The starting date of the harvest changes depending on several factors, namely altitude, climate, production area, grape variety, desired maturity, or the type of wine sought. In France, once this date has been determined, the town councils of wine-growing regions publish a harvest ban that authorizes the harvesting of the grapes. Nowadays, this ban often means a big winegrower’s festival in the village.
In the majority of cases, the harvest is done by a harvesting machine, however it can still be done by hand. This is the case in the Beaujolais region, where combine harvesters are forbidden, since they tend to burst the berries, which is not approved for the production of Beaujolais appellations, which need their whole fruit for the type of winemaking used afterwards.
The important and crucial vinification stage
In winemaking, the vinification stage is the process of transforming grape juice into wine. Many factors are decisive at this stage. Depending on the crushing, de-stemming, pressing, maceration or even the chosen alcoholic fermentation, the wine will either be white, red or rosé, sparkling or still, dry or sweet. The winemaker’s experience and craftsmanship are therefore essential at this stage.
From fruit to juice
Destemming, which is not done systematically, consists of separating the berries from the stalk, i.e. the backbone of the bunch. If this is kept, it accentuates the tannins of the wine. Next, the skins of the grapes are broken by crushing. In the past, this stage of winemaking was done with the feet. Nowadays, mechanical crushing and destemming machines do the work.
From juice to wine
Depending on the type of wine, the steps of pressing, maceration and alcoholic fermentation* follow one another in a different order. Certain other actions may be included, such as pumping over or punching down to reinfuse the must with the marc (the solid elements); settling to remove the solid elements from the must, and sometimes even adding sulphite to protect certain wines from unwanted oxidation.
There is also carbonic maceration, which consists of keeping the bunches whole and placing them in a vat filled with carbon dioxide gas. This process is used in the Beaujolais region and brings characteristic aromas and a certain suppleness to the wine.
Wine maturing for a unique character
An important step in the winemaking process is the maturing process. This differs tremendously from one product to another.
Wines like Beaujolais Nouveau, which have had a marketing date for decades (the third Thursday in November, regardless of harvest time!), sometimes only have a month and a half to go through all the steps of the winemaking process. This is a very short period of time, which means that the wines will not have time to age before bottling and consumption. Consequently, some wines will be placed in stainless steel vats or barrels, sometimes a little of both, in order to develop new aromas and let the structure evolve to get as close as possible to the desired character. Some wines can be left to mature for several months, or even several years.
Wine can be blended before or after maturing and will be filtered and sulphited, if necessary, one last time before bottling.
Bottling: the final stage in winemaking?
We might think that bottling is the last stage in winemaking, however, wine will continue to evolve in the bottle, hence the importance of conservation. Some appellations even ensure bottle ageing before marketing, since the wine will then have reached the desired character and will be ready to drink. In the Rioja region, we find several of these appellations such as Crianza (1 year in barrel, 1 year in bottle), Reserva (1 year in barrel, 2 years in bottle) and Gran Reserva (2 years in barrel, 3 years in bottle). These mentions are a proof of controlled ageing.
Let’s all take a moment to reflect on this work the next time we pull the cork out of a beautiful bottle! If you would like expert advice on anything to do with wines and spirits, please contact our team.
* Alcoholic fermentation: in winemaking, alcoholic fermentation aims at converting sugars into alcohol using yeast. The grape must, more commonly known as the juice, is then transformed into wine.