nurturing the natural process...
wine is a drink made by the partial or complete fermentation of the
juice of fresh grapes. Grapes are the only fruit with a high enough
level of sugar and with the proper balance of acid and nutrients to
sustain a natural fermentation to dryness with stable results. Other
fruits or berries may be fermented, but without additions of sugar,
acid, or various yeast nutrients, they may readily spoil.
Although the biochemistry of fermentation was a mystery until the late nineteenth century, the results of the
process have been known to man for over 5000 years. Fermentation was
thought to be a spontaneous act of Nature, merely set in motion by man. The
grapes were crushed to release the juice (must) into a fermentation
vessel. When the fermentation was complete, the wine was pressed by
some mechanical means to separate the liquid from the stems, skins,
pips and pulp. It was then stored to age and clarify until it was
drunk. While modern technology and methods may have refined and enhanced
it, this is still the basic process today.
is a natural process. Left alone, a grape would ripen until the skin
broke and the juice fermented. The intervention of man is only necessary
to increase the clarity and stability of the end product. "Making"
wine is mostly a matter of the choices and decisions of the winemaker
during each phase of production, from growing the raw material grapes
to bottling the finished wine. These choices determine the wine's
style, flavors, and aromas to a great extent.
is the microscopic, single-celled fungi which causes fermentation.
Yeast cell populations are present in the air, especially in and around
vineyards. This indigenous demographic is known as "wild"
or "ambient" yeast. At one time, the bloom, that
hazy film that covers ripe grape berries, was thought to mostly consist
of yeast cells but this has been proven incorrect. Instead, cells are
concentrated around the berry stem (peduncle) and much fewer
in concentration than thought, in the dozens rather than the thousands.
yeast comes in contact with the grape juice, it begins to feed on
it, grow and reproduce. There are approximately 6000 yeast cells per
ounce of actively fermenting must. An enzyme (zymase) within
them converts sugar in the grape juice into roughly equal parts
of alcohol and carbon dioxide and also releases energy in the form
C6H12O6>ZYMASE>2C2H5OH + 2CO2 + HEAT
this process could continue naturally until the sugar is used up,
which is most often the case. Occasionally, fermentation
continues only until the yeast cells are no longer able to tolerate
the level of their waste products: alcohol, carbon dioxide and/or
heat, thus leaving very small amounts of residual sugar.
It is noteworthy there were no significant
changes in the methods and practices of viticulture and enology from
about 1000 BC until about 1860 AD. Other than small improvements such
as using more metal and less wooden parts in presses and equipment,
the French vignerons of 1850 knew little more of the scientific principals
involved than did the ancient Romans.
Certain events did occur, primarily
regarding wine storage, which together marked the beginnings of serious
wine collecting. An English print from 1778 is the first known evidence
of a corkscrew. In 1797, it was first noticed at Chateau LaFite that
wine that aged in bottles improved. A few years later, in 1815, came
the first documented Declared Vintage of Port.
Although theorized by German chemist Georg Stahl in 1697, the scientific
basis of fermentation was first proven and explained by Louis Pasteur, in 1857.
Pasteur demonstrated fermentation was caused by living organisms and he
developed a germ theory of fermentation in 1861. He was the first
to isolate and distinguish types of yeast (saccharomyces apiculatus and saccharomyces elipsoideus). Pasteur found that some yeasts
are efficient converters of sugar to alcohol and some are not. Some
yeast will stop at about six percent alcohol and some continue until
a level of sixteen or seventeen percent. Even among efficient types,
there are several different strains and each viticultural region seems
to have a specific native strain. He also noted that high temperature
kills off yeast.
Pasteur's discovery made it possible to
sterilize the must, killing off the wild strains by heating it to
below the boiling point and then inoculating the Pasteurized must with the best strain, so that it has no competition. Modern wine
techniques do not use Pasteurization, but may add a small amount
of sulfur to prevent the wild yeast from starting up (see "Related
Modern cultured strains of wine yeast give predictable and dependable results and come in many versions specialized for different purposes. In addition to various tolerances to temperature and alcohol, there are strains that produce aromas with a range of characteristics, strains that produce more body and texture, those that end up with finer and more compact lees, etc. Ambient or feral yeasts became in vogue in the past decade, but the risk of failure or spoilage is enough that most volume producers use only cultured yeasts.
Like all living things, yeast cells
have a primary drive to reproduce. In the first and most vigorous
stage of fermentation (2 to 4 days), the yeast action mainly produces
more yeast. This is the aerobic (contact with air) fermentation.
The anaerobic (without air) fermentation follows and produces
most of the alcohol. Under optimum conditions, a wine fermentation
will last approximately three weeks, but this may take as much as
several months, sometimes for no apparent reason.
can continue until the wine is dry (without residual sugar), or
be stopped at some mid-point to make wines at levels of sweetness
ranging from the barest hint to extremely sweet. Stopping fermentation
can be accomplished by killing or removing the yeast cells by
one of several methods: adding alcohol to raise the level to 15%
or more (as in port or sherry),
adding sulfur dioxide or sorbate (sorbic acid - not considered a
good practice and illegal in many countries), chilling the must,
or by simply filtering out the yeast cells using a sterile
with residual sugar risk re-fermentation
unless filtered to remove any remaining yeast.
a very few exceptions, grapes have clear juice, whether the skins are white (green) or black (purple). Pigmentation (anthocyanin) comes from the skins.
White wine can be made from black grapes by simply pressing the grapes
and separating the clear juice from the pigmented skins before fermentation.
This is the basis of "White Zinfandel" table wines and "Blanc de Noirs"
sparkling wines. The longer the contact between skins and must, the
more color is extracted from the skins into the must.
To make most white wines, winemakers crush and press the juice from
the grapes and add sulphite (75-150 parts per million) to the must to kill the wild yeast and bacteria and prevent oxidation. The
stems, skins, pips and pulp are separated from the juice. One variation
has the fruit go directly into the press, without going through the
crusher, to avoid some degree of oxidation. In another variation the
grapes, after crushing, go into a settling tank where they are chilled
and may sit for up to 24 hours of skin contact before being
Juice separated before the press is
called free-run. It is of higher quality, with less bitterness
and oxidation. The leftover skins, pips and pulp is called the marc,
pommace, or cake. The resulting juice usually has
a lower fixed acidity, but higher volatile acidity, as well as higher
tannin than the free-run. Both the speed and the pressure of the press
affect the quality. Sometimes the marc is pressed first with a modern
bladder-type cylindrical press and then with a traditional basket
press. Some portion of the pressed wine may be added back to the free-run,
but it most often is used for bulk wine production or distillation.
Note that whites are pressed as unfermented must, while reds are pressed
after the fermentation has begun or completed. One ton of grapes will
yield 155 to 195 gallons of must, with 120 to 160 gallons being free-run
juice. The leftover solids are often returned to the vineyard and
ploughed back into the soil.
inoculating with a selected yeast culture, the must is allowed to
ferment for from 2 to 45 days at a temperature usually between 45°
and 65° F.
the temperature, the longer the fermentation continues and the more fruitiness in the resulting wine. A fermentation allowed to
get too hot produces off flavors and can get stuck. Over the
years, temperature control was accomplished by either fermenting small
batches in a cooled environment, pumping the must through a heat-exchanger,
or inserting refrigerated coils in the tanks.
of oak, vats of concrete, or tanks made of stainless steel are the
most common fermentation vessels. Smaller containers of plastic or
fibre glass resin are also common. In the 1960s, science began having
a greater impact upon commercial winemaking and much more attention
was paid to hygiene, especially keeping vats and tanks spotlessly
clean. Materials such as concrete and wood are not as easy to clean
or to temperature control, but are still in use at many wineries.
allows a small exchange between the oxygen outside and the wine inside
the cask or barrel, which some winemakers feel helps to round and
soften tannin and astringency. Wood can also be coopered into many sizes, but expensive, perishable and requires a great deal
of labor to clean and maintain.
is inexpensive, easier to clean and maintain than wood, holds temperature
well, and can be custom-fitted into square shapes and rows that share
common walls and occupy less space than individual casks or tanks.
Many are lined with ceramic tile, enamel, or food-grade epoxy. The
walls may also contain built-in pipes or conduits for regulating temperature.
SS tanks at Cambria (click
steel equipment has major advantages over wood and concrete. Chemically
neutral, stainless steel neither adds nor takes away flavors in wine.
Second, it is easily fitted with temperature controls, including jackets
through which refrigerant can be pumped, thermostats, internal stirring
components and computerized controls that can maintain the temperature
of the must within one or two degrees. Third and most significant,
stainless does not provide a medium for bacterial growth and can be
easily cleaned and sterilized to avoid contamination. Fourth, stainless
steel provides both more durability and more portability than the
For most red wines, winemakers crush, sulphite and inoculate the grapes
and allow the juice to ferment in contact with the skins and pulp
for 2 to 5 days at temperatures between 70° and 80° F (pinot
noir is often allowed to go to 95° F). During this initial period,
color is extracted from the skins as more sugar is converted to ethanol.
and solids in the must will float to the top of the fermenter, forming
a cake that the carbon dioxide cannot escape from. This leaves only
the portion of juice underneath the cake in contact with the skins.
Methods used to break up this cake and insure more color extraction
include punching down by hand several times a day, pumping-over the juice to the top of the cake using a must pump, or
stirring by some other mechanical means, including the relatively
new roto-tanks that turn the entire contents over, like a cement
mixer. After enough color and tannin are extracted, the must is pressed
and the juice separated for clarification, finishing and aging.
presses and fermentors at Gallo of Sonoma (click to enlarge)
CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S NOT BUTTER
Centuries ago, wineries in cold climates noticed wine that had completed alcoholic fermentation in the Fall would sometimes begin bubbling again as Spring temperatures began to climb. This secondary fermentation, now called malolactic fermentation, takes
place in most wine. Malolactic
fermentation is natural, but does not always occur, which made it a problem for most wineries.
Bacteria, rather than yeast, converts some of the malic acid naturally present in grapes into
lactic acid, along with the by-product of carbon dioxide. Renowned wine maker and scientist Emile Peynaud identified and isolated the bacteria responsible (oenococcus
oeni) in the 1950s. It could be prevented by adding sulfur, but prior to the 1980s, "ML" was essentially and
Malic acid has a strong tartness; it is naturally present in apples and grapes and many unripe fruits. Lactic acid is weaker, naturally found in dairy products.1 Diacetyl, a compound produced during malolactic
fermentation, also gives butter its distinctive flavor. Malolactic fermentation, therefore, can have the effect of "softening"
the wine, taking some of the sharp edge off, sometimes imparting a "creamy"
texture and leaving "buttery" aromas and flavors. This is desirable with certain
wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc), undesirable with others (Riesling, Gewürztraminer).
Sometimes, a little goes a long way to change the style or appeal of a particular wine. Controlling the speed and completeness of ML can produce a variety of results. With
modern methods and equipment, winemakers can control the pace and degree of
ML in their wines. Some wineries
inoculate new wine with a malolactic culture.2 They may also heat up
the wine slightly to encourage ML. Some wineries do all they can to
avoid it, even physically separating white wine operations completely from
red, where ML is more likely to occur due
to the normally extended aging of red wines.
the arrival of modern sterile filtration (in the 1980s), an occasional
wine would wait until after it was in the bottle to begin ML. The
bottled wine would become cloudy and fizzy, sometimes developing enough
pressure to blow the cork or break the bottles, and developing a flavor
like sour milk. Long before they understood the science of ML, traditional
vintners knew to wait to bottle their wines until after Spring when
the wine would warm up and ML would often occur naturally.
OUT THE BARREL
Wine can be aged in barrels of oak or other woods to impart and mature flavors. Wooden barrels
leech tannins into wine and can also impart "smoky" flavors if the
barrels have been toasted, short of actual charring. Different
wood species from different forests impart differing flavors and to
a degree of strength depending upon the age of the barrel, relative
to how much use it has seen. The average barrel will add wood flavor
to wine for three years. As long as they remain watertight and uncontaminated
by spoilage bacteria or yeast (such as TCA or brettanomyces),
older barrels are "neutral" in terms of imparting flavors,
although the porosity of the wood does allow a slow exchange of oxygen
that mellows wine to some degree.
the barrel, the stronger the oak flavor. Flavor can also vary, depending
on the manner of cooperage, or barrel-making. Wooden barrels also
allow a degree of oxidation that can mellow a wine. Some loss occurs
through evaporation and wine in barrels, even when kept in a relatively
humid environment, must be topped occasionally with more wine.
MAKE THIS PERFECTLY CLEAR
As wine ages, natural settling and clarification will occur to
some degree, although it is inefficient and inconsistent. The public,
however, is usually unwilling to accept cloudy wine or wine with crystals
or other particles in it, so various methods are used for "cleaning-up"
and finishing wine after fermentation, either before, during, or after
aging. These processes also insure a level of stability or shelf-life for wines shipped to retail or restaurant outlets where the bottles
may spend some time "on the shelf" before purchase and consumption.
methods are similar for both white and red wines. All methods of clarification
remove unsightly particles from wine, but may also strip wine
of pleasant aroma and flavor elements, body, and color.
Racking is the oldest technique of clarification that is just one step beyond
natural settling. This is simply siphoning off the relatively clear
wine after the lees have settled to the bottom, leaving them
behind to discard. The lees are the insoluble matter including dirt
and dust, cellulose, dead yeast cells, bacteria, tartrates and pectin.
Racking may be done only once or several times before a wine is bottled.
Red wines, especially those barrel-aged, are sometimes bottled after
racking without further processing.
stabilization may be considered an adjunct or enhancement to racking.
This process removes excess tartaric acid that, if untreated, might
later form potassium bitartrate crystals, which can show up in wine
bottles or on corks. Although these tartrates dissolve easily and
are edible (cream of tartar, commonly used in cooking) and
harmless, they can alarm the uninformed consumer who thinks there
is "broken glass" in his wine. Cold stabilization is accomplished
by allowing the wine to warm up to "room temperature" and then chilling
it down to about 40° F. The tartaric acid crystallizes in the
tank and the wine drawn off by racking.
Fining is a method of clarifying or chemically stabilizing wine. The procedure
begins by stirring into the container of wine a fining agent that is heavier than both water and alcohol and does not dissolve
in either. The agent ultimately settles to the bottom of the vessel
(tank or barrel), causing small suspended particles to precipitate
out along with the agent. The clarified wine is then separated by
siphoning (racking) off the settlings (lees).
can lower high levels of tannin, remove haze, and reduce color. Care
needs to be taken to chose the proper fining level that conforms the
wine style that winemaker wants to achieve. Over-fining can result
in thin wines that lack aroma complexity, flavor depth, viscosity,
and aging potential.
Physical agents work by absorbing tiny particles and dragging them. Chemical agents work by forming chemical bonds with hydrogen elements in the
undesired particles. Fining agents include egg white, milk, blood,
gelatin, carbon, casein (the principal protein constituent of milk
and cheese) and isinglass (an extract of sturgeon bladders). Heat
stabilization is a fining process that uses bentonite (a clay
of hydrated magnesium silicates) to remove protein, which may cloud
Filtering means passing the wine through a filter small enough to remove undesirable
elements. Various filtering technologies allow great flexibility to
winemakers to make stable wines of varying styles. As
with fining, filtering can also remove elements that contribute to
flavors and aromas, so winemakers need to be judicious and conservative
with this technique to avoid "collateral damage" that leaves their
wine clean but lifeless.
Depth or sheet filtration uses a relatively thick layer of fine material
(diatomaceous earth, cellulose powder, perlite, etc.) to trap and
remove small particles. Surface or membrane filtration
passes wine through a thin film of plastic polymer with uniformly-sized
holes that are smaller than the particles.
Sterile filtration uses micropore filters, which are fine enough to
remove yeast cells, to prevent further fermentation. This is especially
significant when residual sugar is allowed to remain in the wine at
low levels. Prior to the advent of modern micropore filtration, slightly
sweet wines were endangered by the possibility of revived fermentation
in the bottle.
courtesy of Fleet
a viewable collection of wine and other theme
photos that may also be purchased.
an early Northern California vintage, c.
most wineries have either their own mechanized
bottling line or hire a portable bottler do the
chore, the steps are still nearly the same:
sterilizing, filling, corking, foiling, labeling
and casing the bottles. Sterility methods have
greatly improved in the past three
The ancient Romans invented glass blowing and made the first bottles. An English
company patented a machine to mold bottles that were uniform in size
and shape in 1821, but selling wine that was already bottled was illegal in England until 1860.
Wine was customarily sold by the measure; customers provided their own
bottles which were often identified with a personal seal. Paper
labels identifying the contents developed in the late 1800s. Until
the 1970s, wine bottle sizes varied from about 650 to 850 milliliters.
A world standard size wine bottle is now 750 milliliters (26.7 oz.).
equipment can vary from the primitive, using siphon hoses, funnels,
hand corking and labeling machines, to the modern, very sophisticated,
sterile "hospital conditions" of a totally automated bottling line.
Either process must include methods for sterilizing the bottles, standardizing
the fill level, inserting the corks, covering them with capsules or
foils, attaching the labels and boxing the bottles for storage or
bottling, the winemaker conducts blending trials, combining
small samples of cuvées or batches of wine from different
grape varieties, or vineyards, or of different vintages, in varying
combinations until the wine tastes best. When the final blend is determined,
the "recipe" is made and the wine is blended accordingly and bottled.
that are intended for early consumption, where freshness and fruity,
floral characteristics are of prime importance, may be kept for extended
periods in large refrigerated tanks where these qualities are best
preserved. The wine is bottled in batches at various points during
the year, as needed to replenish depleted store shelves or restaurant
LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY
Among the most dynamic and civilization-altering changes of the
20th Century are the methods of preserving and packaging foodstuffs.
At the turn of the 19th Century, a typical general store's shelves
might have a stock of dried or canned goods, bulk grain and flour.
Meat and poultry, fish, dairy, produce and baked goods all came from
specialty stores or straight from the production source. Food shopping
was an errand run several times per week.
market has a wide variety and large inventory of fresh, packaged,
prepared and frozen foods and many shoppers go but once a week or
even less. Treatments, additives and refrigeration have made it possible
to preserve food in an edible state for greater periods of time and
therefore, to cultivate and harvest higher volumes of perishable goods.
of these methods also can be applied to winemaking. We have already
mentioned the role of refrigeration in temperature control during
fermentation. There are also additives, besides yeast and fining agents,
that can be used to "doctor" wines. The most common are acids such
as citric, tartaric or tannic, used to adjust the balance of wine.
Oak chips and powdered oak can add flavor and added tannins can improve
color and balance. These treatments and additives are very unusual
for fine wine grown in the best appellations, but may be common in
attempting to coax palatable wine from grapes grown in marginal climates.
late in the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the wine industry
was almost entirely territorial and hardly at all technical. Wine
making methods were passed on from mostly European traditions. In
1957, Industrialist-Diplomat James D. Zellerbach opened a new winery
in Sonoma, dedicated to and named after his wife Hana and modeled
in great detail after the architecture and methods of Clos de Vougeot
in Bourgogne ("Burgundy"), France. Mixing innovation with tradition,
Hanzell was the first winery to use stainless steel tanks (of his
own design) for fermentation, to import French oak barrels, and to
have a laboratory on the premises for monitoring and analysis, all
of which are common elements of modern wineries.
Mechanical advances such as field crushers, bladder and roto presses,
stainless steel tanks, micropore filters, refrigeration, vacuum-bottling
and other devices and methods have all evolved in the past four decades.
The latest innovation is the Foss Winescan Analyzer which projects
a beam of infrared light through wine or juice and quantifies up to
18 different components, based on the way they absorb the light. Conventional
chemistry would take hours to perform the same tests.
Invention and innovation have primarily had the effect of allowing the winemaker
to have more control over the process and to gain a measure of consistency.
This control has stimulated the industry to examine, experiment, and
perfect their techniques and methods.
methods are often simply extensions of circumstances that have occurred
naturally over the history of "primitive" wine making, such as inducing
malolactic fermentation. One fairly recent technique is cold-soaking the fruit in tanks chilled to 45° or below for several hours
or days to postpone the start of alcoholic fermentation. This technique
mimics what may happen during particularly cold harvest seasons. The
chilling seems to enhance color and preserve more of the fruit character
in the wine before the alcohol reaches a level that causes a high
extraction of tannin.
be that the finest wines are produced with the indigenous natural or wild yeast that balances the various alcohols, which may be more desirable.
Natural yeast fermentation also carries the risk that the fermentation
will not continue to a stable level of alcohol (above 11%) or that
the vinegar yeast will take the process beyond wine and into salad
dressing. In any case, man is rediscovering Nature to be the greatest
wine maker of all.
1. Malic acid [COOH-CH2-COHO-COOH]
is the tart natural acid of apples; lactic acid [CH3-COHO-COOH]
is the milder-tasting natural acid of milk. RETURN
2. A recent development of genetic engineering is a strain of yeast that can perform both alcoholic and malolactic fermentations simultaneously, saving production time for large producers. The genes to make this possible were transferred from the bacterium into the yeast. RETURN
Alexander Pandell's The
Acidity of Wine is an excellent discussion of the acidic elements which dominate wine
chemistry and how total acids and pH level affect flavors.
wine making technology is turning retro, rather than high-tech, including
use of indigenous, feral, or Native
as explained by Winemaker David Ramey.
Wine making is probably more easy to understand by watching the process. Consult your TV Guide for re-runs or follow the link to purchase a DVD of the History Channel's feature "Modern Marvels: Wine", first broadcast in November, 2007 (I appeared as an expert commentator in several clips between segments to secure my 7 minutes of fame... they still owe me 8 minutes, right?).