For most winemakers, the journey of their wine from grape to glass is one of a thousand decisions. What grape varieties do they plant, and where will they plant them? When do they pick the grapes, and who will pick them? Stainless steel, concrete eggs, old school traditional French oak barrels – the winemaker’s choice of ageing their wine.
The nouveau young hip winemakers of today making natural or ‘non-intervention’ wine. Or those winemakers that follow their ‘family recipe’, where the same vineyards, winemaking processes and techniques are used from generation to generation, symbolising a family’s dynasty.
Think back to the most enjoyable glass of wine you’ve ever tasted. The grapes that made up that glass of wine, where likely grown in an area of exceptional terroir – terroir is a French term meaning the complete natural environment comprising of soil and climate conditions, where grapes flourish.
An important decision of any new winemaker is, consequently, the location, as this will determine what grapes can grow successfully there, and what influences of flavour the wine will take from the earth the vine is growing on. Location is so significant that even in some parts of the world, like Burgundy, a Chardonnay from one area could cost €20, while a few hundred metres down the road in a more celebrated domain or village of grape production, your bottle of Chardonnay could cost you as much as a week’s salary.
Though the location of where the grapes are grown is much of the magic, it takes the artist of the winery, otherwise known as the winemaker, to make their masterpiece. They do this by the following;
Harvesting is the first process of winemaking in producing a remarkably delicious wine. The timing of when to harvest the grapes is crucial, as this will determine the sweetness, acidity, and of course, flavour of the wine. Harvesting depends profoundly on the weather, with some winemakers opting to pick their grapes at the hottest time of the day in the afternoon, or adversely in the middle of the night when it is the coldest temperature possible.
What any winemaker will aspire to achieve by harvesting at their own chosen time, is to pick the grapes when the acidity and sweetness levels are in perfect harmony with one another. For mass market wineries or wineries with entry-level wine options, their grapes will likely be mechanically harvested, with machines trawling the vineyards doing much of the hard work. For smaller production wineries and wines, hand harvesting is preferred by discerning winemakers, where only the best grapes are selected and picked off the vines, offering a top-quality wine in the end.
After the grapes are harvested, they are sorted to separate any bad grapes that may have gone into the mix. Following that, the grapes are de-stemmed (to remove any unwanted excess tannins that the stem contains) and then crushed, usually mechanically. Before pre-mechanical crushing became part of today’s winemaking technology, the old process to extract the juice from the grapes was for the winemaker and their family to stomp on them inside a giant vat!
Once the grapes are crushed, the juice and skins that are left are called the ‘must’. Must is merely the freshly pressed grape juice that includes the seeds, solids, and skin. For white wine, the winemaker will quickly crush the grapes and separate the juice from the skins and all else. This is done to ensure the white wine doesn’t pick up unnecessary colours and tannins. Red wine grapes, however, will spend time infusing with the skins etc. as red wine will need the additional flavour, tannins, and colour.
Once crushed and pressed, fermentation of the grapes can take place naturally after about 6-12 hours with wild yeasts circulating in the air. Most winemakers, however, will intercept this and add commercial, cultured yeasts into the grape juice to make a more consistent, controlled wine that will have more of a predictable result to what they ultimately want their wine to be.
Fermentation will not end until all the sugar is converted into alcohol, and a dry wine comes to be. Those winemakers who are making a sweet wine can stop the process before all the sugar converts into alcohol. The method of fermentation itself can take anywhere from 10 days to 1 month, in some instances, even more.
Following the end of fermentation, clarification is the process in which excess solids such as tannins, dead yeast cells and proteins are removed from the premature wine.
The wine is transferred or ‘racked’ into a different vessel – oak barrels or stainless-steel vats is the preference of most winemakers. From there, the process of fining and filtration can happen with the wine. Fining is when a substance is added to the wine to clarify it. Bentonite, a type of volcanic clay, is one of these substances that when put into the wine, attracts the unwanted particles and brings them to the bottom of the vessel.
Filtration is the other clarification process where winemakers use a filter to catch the large particles that are in the wine. The wine is later transferred to another barrel or steel vat for future ageing or immediate bottling.
The final and perhaps most glamorous stage of the wine production is its ageing and bottling. Winemakers have two options at this point, allow the wine to possibly further its potential by ageing it in oak barrels/stainless steel, or to bottle the wine immediately. White wines that are designated to age in oak barrels will develop a luscious, creamy vanilla texture providing on how long it spends ageing, while red wines will attract from oak barrels a peppery flavour profile, with roundness, balance, and even additional tannins from the wood.
As oak barrels are porous, this allows oxygen in small measures to the wine, which will enhance its development and allow it increased ageing potential in the bottle down the line.
Wines that are transferred into stainless steel vats for short-term ageing will likely elevate the wine with a zesty, mineral character.
After ageing, the wine will either be put into the bottle with a screwcap or cork enclosure, depending on the winemaker’s preference.
The wine you enjoy in your glass this evening is almost like a time capsule to when it was made in the winery. An ode to the place and terroir, the artistry of the winemaker, and the passion put into each bottle – there’s nothing quite else like it.
Originally from Celbridge, Kildare, Philip Dunne has worked in the Irish hospitality industry since he was 15. After experiences in fine and casual dinning, he started to work at Ashford Castle in 2015 and after working his way up, he became Ashford Castle’s Head Sommelier at the age of 25. Since March 2018, Philip is the Restaurant & Wine Director at Old Street Restaurant in Malahide.
Philip’s passion for wine goes beyond the service at the luxurious five star as he also writes about the topic and he’s an enthusiastic and active presence in the Irish wine scene.