Making Wine | How Does A Grape Turn Into Wine?

Harry Lambourne
2nd September 2021

Chances are that if you’re reading this, then you love wine. However, you’re less likely to be clear on what goes into making wine. This article can serve as a guide to let you know how humans went from picking berries from trees, to cultivating vines and turning it into your favourite tipple.

These were peoples first tentative steps into the world of wine. We climbed trees, found berries and picked them. The berries began to ferment and humans found out that drinking this fermented berry juice had a positive effect, (in moderation).

As humans began to settle, rather than roam, we started farming. With this farming came the birth of viticulture. We didn’t need to climb to reach the berries. We could plant them and let them grow up to us. These changes took place around 10,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until around 4,000 to 6,000 years later that the first forms of wine started to really take shape.

Wine has continued to be an integral part of human life. From the Greeks and Romans worshipping Dionysus and Bacchus respectively, to its consumption in rituals in the Jewish and Christian traditions. It continued to expand as the European countries expanded outwards. The production of wine spread throughout the world.

While there are nuances to making wine in different styles, let’s look at the general steps of how it’s done. These are the steps that almost every vintner will take when producing wine.

Dionysus - God of Wine
Dionysus – God of Wine

Growing Grapes

Unsurprisingly, all things start with the growing of the grapes. This is the place where the greatest variation can enter in the process. The terroir deeply affects the process of growing grapes and making wine as a whole. Terroir refers to all the factors which can influence the end product of the wine. Climate, soil type, farming methods and more. For a full breakdown of what terroir means – read our article here.

Quality of the grapes and terroir go together. One impacts greatly on the other. As such, many vineyards across the globe take normalised steps to ensure the final product is as unaffected and natural as possible. These include factors such as standard harvest seasons. Harvesting, or picking, grapes is the first step in making wine. Generally, in the Northern hemisphere the harvests will take place from August to November. Whereas, the Southern hemisphere will run from February to March, with some cooler areas extending this period into April.

Crushing Grapes

The next step in the process of making wine is the crushing of the grapes. The goal here is to break the skins and get the contents of the grapes (the grape juice) out into the world. This process was traditionally always done by people crushing the grapes barefoot, (podophobes please stop reading now). While this may provoke a negative reaction, it is in fact a process which is still carried out in some parts of the world. With some suggestion that it actually quickens the fermentation process and improves flavour. I’ll have to take their word for that!

a winemaker making wine by crushing grapes with their bare feet
Grape Stomping – Integral to Making Wine

A key part of the crushing is also the destemming. This is the removal of the stems from the flesh of the grape. Although, the use of destemming differs between red and white. Stems are usually kept in the fermentation stage of the process for red wine. However, for white wines the stems are removed before fermentation, due to the stems increasing the tannins in the wine.

Pressing Off The Grape Skins

Pressing is the next stage in production process. While, this could easily be conflated with crushing, the express goal of the two are different. Crushing breaks the skin and gets the juices going. Pressing is applying pressure to get the juice from the grape and the grape skin.

Pressing is essential to increasing production, but is not actually necessary to produce wine. The juice released at the crushing stage, (free-run juice), actually can produce higher quality end products. However, yields would be too low to produce the quantities we are all after. It is at this point when the grape skins are removed unless the wine maker is producing red wine.

Fermentation

In any form of alcohol production, fermentation is key and making wine is no different. Here, yeast is the activator which turns the natural sugars in grapes into ethanol. Ethanol being the stuff that gets you drunk. There are multiple stages at which fermentation can occur. Primary fermentation begins with the crushing of the grapes. As the insides of the grapes are exposed to the elements, the process of fermentation begins. Truth be told their are natural yeasts in grapes which is why fermentation starts before additional yeast are added by the winemaker.

Wine being fermented
There is no making wine without fermentation

Once pressing has been completed, the secondary fermentation process begins. This is where the wine begins to evolve, in an airlock. This helps to prevent oxidation and it then begins to ferment even further. During this stage the wine becomes much clearer. Secondary fermentation and the choice of storing is another key contributor to the final product. Secondary fermentation can take place in stainless steel vessels, oak barrels, glass demijohns, clay amphoras or a number of other containers. All of which can impart different secondary or tertiary aromas and flavours to the wine.

Ageing

Ageing is an act which can have a huge impact on the quality of wine. Generally, conversations around ageing and wine will be about ageing within the bottle, once the final product is available to the consumer.

The ageing here is instead the stages beyond the secondary fermentation. It is in this process that the wine really begins to develop a distinct flavour and aroma. Elements such as the vessel and the humidity can really play a part here as the wine begins to take shape. 

During this time, the liquid clarifies further. A number of the undesirable elements rise to the top. This allows them to be easily separated out, or fined, in the later stages of the process.

Bottling

Last but not least is the bottling. This aspect is self-explanatory. Vintners siphon the wine off from the storage vessel into wine bottles. There are further steps though. You do not simply pour from to another. Vintners blend and filter the wine before bottling. They may also add additional sulfites at this point. This will all be in order to further enhance, stabilise and refine the end product ready for human consumption.

There are also additional steps to the bottling stage which depend on the type of wine being produced. For example, the ‘traditional method’ which is used to produce Champagne, Cremant and Cava sparkling wines allows for further fermentation to occur once bottled.

Once standard wines are bottled, the closure is made. This is either via a screw cap, also known as a stelvin, or a cork. This is the final step in the process. After this, the product is as the consumer would receive it. Cork being the preference for wine that will age in the bottle.

Wine being bottled
Wine being bottled

In summary, that is the ‘dummies guide’ to making wine from start to finish. Hopefully, it provides some perspective to what vintners across the globe are doing. The process is admirable. It is intricate and time-consuming, while also being physically intensive. Cheers to them!

Equally, if you feel ready to try your hand at it all yourself and you are looking to ‘make your own wine’, a detailed guide is available here.

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