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The Wine Making Process, Start to Finish 

Wine making is an art that is highly dependent on nature.  Grapes owe their aromas, flavors, and overall quality to the soil and climate in which they are raised.  Different growing conditions produce different grapes and therefore different wines, and Washington has a greater variety of wine making conditions than any other state.   

One of the most important things to understand about grape growing is that grape vines need to be stressed to give their best fruit.  They thrive in well drained soils because the roots have to dig deep to find water.   

Wines are named for the grapes they are made from.  Different varieties of grapes produce different types of wines based on their flavor and sugar content.  Different grapes also grow and ripen well in different climates – some are “cool climate grapes” and others are “warm climate grapes.”  Many wine grape varieties were developed in Europe, which is why they may have French or German names.  Click here for a pronunciation guide for some of the most common wine varietals.

If you want to view the winemaking process, the best time to tour a winery is between August and October, when most of the grapes ripen and are crushed and fermented.  However, a winery tour can be very informative any time of the year, and most tasting rooms are open year round. 

Many wineries delegate much of the wine making process to others, often for economic reasons.  However, the wine maker can still retain control over the process, and often personally oversees the off-site work.  A winery may have it grapes crushed at another facility, or it may go a step further and have the fermenting done off site too.  Some wineries don’t grow, crush, or ferment any of their own grapes, but buy finished bulk wine and blend it to create their own signature wine.  Legally, it’s permissible for a winery to leave the entire process, from vine to label, to others.  While these can still be excellent wines, it’s nice to know the story behind the label.  As you tour Washington's wineries and tasting rooms, you'll find that the majority of winemakers control the entire winemaking process at their own facility.  Most Washington winemakers produce a relatively small amount of wine every year.  Limited production allows the winemaker to be more involved in every step of the process, which is both science and art.   

Many factors come into play in the grape growing and wine making process.  The winemaker must make many choices along the way, the first being when to harvest. 

Step 1 – Harvesting

The amount of sugar in the grapes is measured to determine ripeness.  The wine maker will also consider the grapes’ acid content, flavor, and aroma. 

Some grapes are picked by hand, others by machine, depending on the winery, the terrain, and the type of grape.  White wine grapes are often picked at night, because grape acids, which bring out the fruit flavors in the wine, increase at night.   

Step 2 – Crushing 

At the crush pad, the bunches of grapes are unloaded onto a conveyor belt, which drops the clusters into a de-stemmer/crusher.  This machine knocks the grapes off the stems and crushes them, and the grapes and juice fall through a grate, through pipes, and into a vat.  The stems and leaves can then be recycled into the vineyard as natural fertilizer.   

The next step of the process depends on the type of grape used, and the type of wine being made.  White wine grape juice heads to settling tanks, where the skins settle to the bottom.  The clear juice is them pumped to a fermenter – either a stainless steel tank, or an oak barrel. 

Step 3 – Fermentation 

Fermentation is the process by which the natural fruit sugars are converted, with the aid of yeasts, into alcohol.  You may have noticed that white wines, which are generally sweeter than reds, are often also lower in alcohol content than reds.  This is because the yeast “eats up” less of the sugar, so there is more sugar left in the finished wine, but also less alcohol.  In red wines, the yeast eats up more of the sugar, creating more alcohol, but also leaving less sugar, which makes the finished wine less sweet.  White wine is fermented in cooled tanks to preserve the wine’s delicacy and fruit flavors.   

Red wine grapes are crushed just like white wine grapes, but the juice is not separated from the skins.  The skins give the wine its color.  (That’s right – all grape juice is naturally white!)  Both the juice and the skins are fermented together.   Rose (Roe-zay) or blush wines are also made from red wine grapes, but the juice is left in contact with the skins for only a few hours, instead of days as in the case of red wines.   

The inclusion of the skins is a big part of what makes red wines taste different from whites.  The fermentation process extracts both flavor and tannins from the skins.  As the grape sugars turn into alcohol, they generate a lot of carbon dioxide, which, since it is lighter than the wine, but heavier than the air above it, forms a barrier or "cap" over the wine, protecting it from oxidation.  The skins also rise to the top and have to be mixed back in, either by punching down manually, or pumping the wine from the bottom of the vat, back up to the top and through the barrier of carbon dioxide and grape skins.   

The manual punching down method is preferable, because it leaves the carbon dioxide layer intact, but this method can be dangerous.  In November of 2002, a British Columbia winery owner was overcome by the fumes and fell into a 600 gallon tank.  Tragically, he drowned, and his winemaker also died while attempting to rescue him.  While this tragic story reinforces the fact that winemaking is not a simple or harmless process, rest assured that such accidents are not commonplace!

Step 4 – Racking and Fining, and Aging

When the wine has finished fermenting – either in tanks or barrels – it is racked, or moved to clean tanks or barrels to separate it from the “lees” – the spent yeast and any grape solids that may have settled out of the wine.  Some wines are “left on the lees” for longer periods of time in order to increase complexity.   

If the wine has been aged for a long time, it will be racked again before being bottled.  It may also be fined – clarified with the addition of a fining agent like bentonite or albumen, which draw off impurities.  Some winemakers filter their wines instead of fining.   

After a red wine has been racked, it is aged in oak barrels (some wineries are now experimenting with stainless steel barrels) for a year or more.  Oak contains natural tannins, which the wine extracts from the barrel.  The selection of barrels is another factor that influences the end product.  Country of origin, the barrel maker, and the level of toast given to the barrel all affect the finished wine.  A barrel may be used for as long as seven years, although most winemakers use new barrels every year, especially for their finest wines.  Used barrels might be sold to another winemaker, recycled, or end up at your local garden store as a planter. 

Step 5 – Bottling and Labelling

After the wine is bottled and labeled, it is available to you, the consumer.  The label can tell you a lot about the wine.  Regulations control what a winery is allowed to put on its label.  Labels must include a winery or brand name, a type designation (usually the variety of grape), and the alcohol content (with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5%).  “Table Wine” may range from 7% to 14% alcohol. 

Here are some other labeling terms and what they indicate: 

Single grape variety named – at least 75% of the wine must have come from this variety

Appellation named – at least 85% of the wine must come from that area

Washington wine” – all of the grapes must have come from Washington State

Vintage date (the year the grapes were harvested and processed) – 95% of the wine must be from that vintage

“Estate bottled” – must also list the appellation and the name of the winery that bottled the wine, which must be within that appellation; the winery must have grown all the grapes on land it owns or controls within the appellation; it must have crushed, fermented, finished, aged, and bottled the wine on its own premises. 

“Reserve” – often thought to indicate that the wine is from a special or “best” batch, but this term carries no legal obligations and so may or may not indicate anything special about the wine

“Grown, produced, and bottled by” – must meet the same criteria as “estate bottled” wine, except the grapes need not be estate grown

“Produced and bottled by” – the winery didn’t grow the grapes for the wine 

“Cellared, vinted, or prepared” – the winery bought finished wine which it aged or blended

“Bottled by” – the winery bought finished wine and bottled it under their label 

In summary, the best quality wines tend to be those which are “estate bottled” or “grown, produced, and bottled by”.  However, this is not always the case, since even the best winery can have a bad year.  In the same way, custom crushed wine isn’t necessarily of poor quality – many are award winning, enjoyable, and affordable. 

Step Six – Aging in the Bottle

Even after it’s bottled, wine may not be quite ready to drink.  White wines are often ready to drink soon after bottling, but red wines continue to age in the bottle, their flavors and character developing more with time.  You can ask how long to age the wine for maximum enjoyment.  Some wine makers are trending toward making red wines which are also ready to drink soon after bottling.  Many less expensive wines are not intended to be aged more than a few years. 

If you do age your wines, the way they are stored is very important.  Temperature, humidity, and light all affect the wine and can cause it to age faster or, under extreme conditions, to be ruined.  Wine bottles should be stored on their side so that the cork stays moist.  If the cork dries out, it may shrink and allow air to enter the bottle, oxidizing the wine.  Since cork is porous, very small amounts of air will seep into the bottle through time, even if the bottle is stored on its side.  This is part of the aging process.  You may have noticed the difference in flavor between a glass of red wine from a newly opened bottle, and a glass from the same bottle the next day.  This is a result of the wine being exposed to the air.  Wine is a constantly changing “organism”.

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