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What you need to know about how wine is made

By Jeffrey Carl

Winemaking dates back at least to ancient Egypt around 3000 B.C. Wine drinking dates to about fives minutes after they figured out what fermentation was. In 1600 B.C., the Greeks were rhapsodizing about wine in their literature; by the first century A.D., the Romans were exporting wine to their territories including Spain, England, Germany and France.

Nearly all wine is made from grapes that are grown in vineyards (wild grapes tend to be too sour). There is really a great deal of artistry involved in winemaking, largely based on soil, weather and the types of grape involved. Grapes for most wines must be chosen at the peak of ripeness for the wine in question, which is as much an art as it is a science. Sudden frosts or weather changes can result in an entire year’s crop being ruined, which causes terrible things like the plot of the 1995 Keanu Reeves movie A Walk In the Clouds.

The grapes are picked and immediately de-stemmed. White wines are kept about 24 hours in their skins (to absorb some of the flavors contained therein), while red wines go through the entire fermentation process inside their skins to absorb more of their color, taste and tannins. The wines then pass through a press, which pulls out the grape juice. White wines are passed through a “cold-press,” which separates the juice from any outside particles.

The wine is then fermented, where yeast is added that turns the sugars in wine into alcohol. Different types of yeast are used, based on grape type and temperature. The wine is then pumped out in a process of “racking” used to remove the yeast, which may take multiple passes. The wine then undergoes “fining,” which removes unwanted excess proteins or tannins.  Tannins provide the bitter but flavorful “bite” of some wines, and are responsible for the color of red wines.

Wines at this point may undergo a secondary fermentation called Malolactic Fermentation, or MLF (read elsewhere for more on the controversy over MLF). This process converts the harsher malic acid in the wine to the mellower lactic acid, altering the wine’s taste and character. Some wines are ready for bottling right after fermentation, while others require filtering. White wines are typically delivered sooner, while red wines may be matured for years before delivery. If you're still reading at this point, you're probably pretty bored, so just imagine this whole process being carried out by Lucy Ricardo.

Most wineries (especially small ones) don’t produce wines made entirely from their own vines; they generally buy wine from one or more larger vineyards and mix their own grapes with it to create a unique blend. So it’s very possible that the wines you’re drinking at two next-door wineries may have everything (or nothing) in common.

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