Why do I do this to myself... How is it made, really? Well here goes the start to a very, very long segment written over and over by much more educated people, but who cares about them, heres my take!
To start talking about how wine is made, you first need to understand that we are talking about agriculture, because at the end of the day, this is just fancy farming. As with all agriculture, there is a dependence on Mother Nature. Starting with the location, which will then dictate to a certain degree the weather patterns, and then of course there is soil type and things like elevation, bodies of water, currents within the bodies of water and so on, and so on, and so on. So to keep the basic location of where it is possible to grow grapes intended for winemaking simple, lets consider the 30-50 rule as a baseline. The 30-50 rule is simple. In order to have proper seasonal weather that is suitable for grape growing intended for winemaking, you must be between 30-50 degrees north or south of the equator. When you are closer than 30 degrees, it will be to warm and the vines will not have the much needed shutdown period due to the winter months, and above the 50th parallel it is of course the opposite, and far to cold to successfully ripen the grapes by harvest time. There are some exceptions to this rule, and with climate change warming up some of the cooler regions just outside this zone, we will likely see the rule stretched more and more over time, but as a baseline the 30-50 is still a good rule to begin with.
Once you arrive at the vineyard, things start to get increasingly complicated. but lucky for me and whoever is reading, this is just a 101, so I intend to drastically simplify. To begin - vines must first be planted of course. Now with grape vines, you can not simply plant seeds, as the varietal of the vine itself is of the utmost importance when making wine, so you must source a clone of the particular varietal you are looking for in order to ensure that what grows is in fact what you want. Once you have selected this clone, you can go ahead and plant. After planting, there is a period of waiting that I can only imagine to be awfully frustrating. It is about 3 years minimum before the vines are strong enough and producing suitable fruit until the first harvest can be conducted.
The Growing Season
Fast forward three years or so to now having the ever so intricate and perhaps even more heartbreaking (or celebratory) growing season. This is easier when broken down into stages, as that is in fact how the grapes mature through the season.
Bud Break - The early sign of activity. Small shoots and some leaves will break through the buds around March/April (Northern Hemisphere). This is when the vine becomes susceptible to frost.
Flowering - This will happen some time between 6-13 weeks after bud break. The pre-mature bunches (embryo bunches) will start to bloom into small flower clusters for around 10 days. This is one of my favourite times as it is a beautiful sight to see, but equally scary as this is when the flower bunches that will hopefully mature into grapes are most vulnerable to the effects of cold, frost, and high winds, among other risks.
Fruit Set - The embryo bunches will then develop into berries, and start to resemble what most can identify as grapes. No matter what the colour of the grape, whether it's black or white, these bunches will start off green, almost like a bunch of peas. Much of the berries will not set properly and fall away during this period. The grapes then grow but remain hard and very acidic throughout most of July.
Veraison - This is where the grapes begin to actually ripen. Starting in August, depending on climate and vintage, the leaves will start to transfer sugars and the berries will begin to change colour. Black grape varietals will turn red/black and white will become yellow/green. This is where the sugar levels will increase and the acidity will decrease approaching the ever so important next step.
Harvest - Finally we are here! This is the ever so important time of picking your grapes and ushering them on to the winery. Because grapes ripen individually there needs to be ample care when selecting your berries, sometimes even selecting them one by one through multiple sorting stages. This also needs to be completed very quickly and with intensive care, as there is once again a period of vulnerability when removing grapes from the vine.
Once the vineyard work is complete, the grapes are then brought in to the winery. This can sometimes be a very short trip if the winery is situated within the vineyard, however, it is more likely that there is a distance of some sort traveled to arrive at their next destination. Once the grapes arrive they will usually go through additional sorting to ensure that the best of the bunches have been selected and their journey to becoming our favourite beverage continues! This is where the complication, intricacy, and inevitable confusion continues, but don't worry, I am keeping it simple.
Crushing - Once the additional sorting is completed and the majority, or all of the "matter other than grapes" (leaves, bugs etc.) has been removed, they will continue on to the crushing, and usually destemming, process.
Fermentation [Sugar to Alcohol] - Now that crushing/pressing is complete, the grape juice [actually referred to as the grape "must"] will be put into a vessel that is optimal for yeast. Red wines will be put into fermentation vessels with their skins for a period of time. The skin and juice contact is where the colour is extracted along with the tannins. The longer and more aggressive the skin contact, the more colour and tannin will be extracted. White wines are fermented juice only, having the skins removed after the grapes are pressed and before the must is set for fermentation. Fermentation can be quick or slow depending on many factors in the choices of the winemaker, but essentially will take place until the active yeast has consumed all of the fermentable sugars, thus creating alcohol.
Ageing - Once fermentation is complete, ageing is a process that has an infinite amount of variation. Both red and white wines can be either released very early or aged for an extended time in many different vessels. The choice of how long and/or what vessel is one that is made with careful consideration. A wine can be released anywhere from a few months after fermentation to many years after fermentation. Some regions have regulations in place that mandate the minimum ageing requirements and the type of vessel that must be used. Examples of ageing vessels range from stainless steel vats to small oak barrels or concrete eggs to clay amphora, each lending a different development and unique flavour.
Filtering and Bottling - Now that the wine has finished its long and complicated creation, it is time to get it into a bottle. Before this is done it is typical for the winery to fine and filter the wine. There are many methods for this process but the end goal is to have a clear and bright finished product. Some wineries will decide to bottle their wine unfiltered for various reasons, but it should be noted that a wine like this should usually be decanted to avoid getting a mouthful of sediment.
Additional Bottle Ageing - Once the wine has been bottled it needs to rest for a period of time before being released. This can vary and is executed for different reasons from winery to winery. No matter what the wine is, it will need a short rest period to get over what is commonly referred to as "bottle shock" which is simply a period of time that the wine needs to re-settle after going through the rather aggressive bottling process. For some wines, mainly robust red wines, they will need an extended time in bottle to further develop and start to show their desirable characteristics (Barolo, Bordeaux, Rioja, Côte Rôtie, etc.) and therefore some wineries will rest their wines in their cellars for multiple years before releasing them to the public, and once again, some of these regions actually have regulations mandating their minimum cellar time before release.
So now that someone has gone through all of that tedious and incredibly difficult process of making wine, we must do our due diligence and consume as much as we possibly can!!! In all honesty, I have such a deep love and respect for the artists of the wine world. It is a craft that continues to evolve and requires a passion that is beyond description. The variations of style and intention when making wine are endless and that is what makes it so exciting, but this should get you on the right path when it comes to understanding the basics, and I can't wait to continue the path with Part 2. Thank you for reading and check back soon.