Winemaking is an art that is influenced by science more and more each year. Happy barefoot
grape stompers have given way to machines crafted to gently extract the juices without
destroying the skins. Fermentation is carefully controlled. And yet, with all of the
science, it still comes down to a flavor mix to please the winemaker's palate.
The steps listed below explain how a white wine is typically made. Steps vary for red wines, and especially for Champagne, which
uses the methode champenoise. If you ever get a chance to, visit your local
winery! They often give tours and you can see first-hand exactly how wine making works.
The first step in making a white wine is to have the grapes just ready. They need to be
picked not only at the proper time in their life cycle, but also at the right time of day
to ensure the acids and sugars are all at the right balance for the wine. The grapes are
picked carefully, to prevent bruising, and often first put into a cleaner that removes
spiders and leaves (and, one winemaker told us, occasionally mice!).
Next, the grapes are put into a machine which gently squeezes the juice out. For a white wine, all skins and stems are removed at this point. They would add a tannic flavor to the wine, and a color as well - neither are normally desired in a white wine.
The liquid is held in a stainless steel vat. In this vat, the sugars inside the grapes
are turned into alcohol by yeasts. Some wineries use only the naturally occuring yeasts
that are found with the grapes. Others have cultured yeasts that they use year after year.
This fermentation process typically takes from 3-4 weeks.
Temperature is very important during this stage - it also affects flavour and color. Often cooling pipes or even garden hoses with holes in them are run around the vats, to maintain the temperature.
When fermentation is complete, white wine can then go through cold stabilization. This process requires the wine dropping to almost freezing, to precipitate out the tartaric crystals that can form. The crystals are quite harmless, and this process can affect wine flavor, but it is done so nervous consumers do not panic when they see crystals in their wine bottles.
Aging can be done in barrels, or now it is even done in stainless steel vats with oak
chips along their bottoms. Often, during aging, a special bacteria is added which
allows malolactic fermentation to occur.
This additional fermentation, often
noted with a "ML" on the barrel being used,
converts the malic (sharp) acid into a lactic (mild) acid. Barrel aging in general
allows the wine to absorb some of the flavours of the barrel, giving it an oaky and
White wine is normally aged for less time than a red wine is. It might age for up to a year to give it the correct amount of flavor, or it could be bottled immediately. White wines are normally drinkable right when you purchase the bottle, although there are some whites that do benefit from a few years of aging.
Do you want to make your own wine? Check out the Primer on Home Winemaking!
Winemaking Main Page