When most people think about wine, they think about drinking it – not taking an exam. Whilst you definitely don’t need to understand wine to enjoy it, the knowledge can go a long way when trying to explain why you like a certain type of wine, and what to look for when faced with a wine list at a restaurant, or the daunting supermarket aisle. It can make matching wine with food so much easier, too. For those curious about precisely how wine goes from grape to glass, here is a simple, generalised overview of the process of making red, white, rosé wines. (Sparkling wines will be covered in another post).
The Basics of Wine-Making:
For all 3 styles, grapes are crushed into a big, juicy soup (famously with feet, but only sometimes nowadays) . Yeast is added and the grape juice is left to ferment for a while, and as the yeast eats the sugars, it converts it into alcohol. This process stops when the yeast dies; either because there is no more sugar to eat, or because the alcohol has reached 15% ABV. It can’t survive a higher percentage, which is why you will struggle to find a wine that is above 15%. Fortified wines, like Sherry and Port, are again another story, so don’t worry about those for now.
Give the fermented grape juice a little time to age, or mature, and there you have it – wine!
Of course, fining agents can be involved, which is what we vegans know can make a wine suitable, or unsuitable, for vegans and vegetarians (read more information about it here). This happens before bottling, and basically helps get rid of the dead yeast cells, and any other random bits that we don’t want to be drinking. Some wines are sold as unfiltered, or unrefined, but most will have been to some degree- and it usually says on the bottle if they aren’t.
So How Are Red, White and Rosé Wines Different? It’s all in the skins!
Whether you make a red, white or rosé wines depends not just on the choice of grape, but on what happens to the skins during the making process. Wines get a lot of their colour and flavour from the skins, and this is also where a key wine term comes into play. It gets thrown around a lot when talking about wine, and it’s super important – tannins.
You know that curt dryness that some red wines have? Or perhaps if you’ve ever drunk everyday tea without milk? That’s caused by tannins. Tannins are where a lot of a wine’s heavy flavour comes from, and they mostly reside in the grape skins and stalks.
White wines have the skins removed before fermentation, so they have no tannins, and significantly less colour than the others. White wines tend to have more residual sugar (sugar not eaten by the yeast, so it stays in the bottle) so are often sweeter. You can often predict how sweet or tart a wine will be by looking at the alcohol percentage (ABV). Something like Sauvignon Blanc, which is crisp and dry, will be around 13.5-14%. A sweeter style, like Pinot Grigio, might be around 11-12%. Both are still considered dry white wines, though, and not to be confused with dessert wines, which are super, super sweet!
White wine can also be made with red grapes, as the flesh of most grapes is pale, most of the colour being contained within the skins. A classic example is Champagne, which is made from 2 black grapes, and 1 white grape. Something I haven’t come across before is White Pinot Noir, which I recently discovered at the English vineyard, Furleigh Estate. It’s a beautifully floral and delicate wine that you must try if you get the chance:
Many people assume that rosé is made simply by mixing a white wine with a red, but this is rarely the case. Unless your rosé is very, very cheap, the grapes have followed a process very similar to that of red wine, but keeps their skins for a much shorter time. It usually has them removed after 12-36 hours, and there’s no system of press or free run wine (more on that later). It is simply left to mature, and then it’s bottled. So, at a very basic level, rosé is just very weak red wine, made with lighter black grapes. Popular grapes for rosé are: Grenache, Cinsault and Pinot Noir.
To make a red wine you must use black grapes. Unlike white wines, red wines stay in contact with the grape skins whilst they ferment with the yeast. This can be anywhere from 2 weeks for a big, hefty Bordeaux, or 5 days for a light Pinot Noir or Beaujolais. The longer the grape juice ferments, the more time is has with the skins, which will lead to a wine with more tannins, more flavour, and more colour.
After this, the wine goes in 2 directions; a portion keeps the skins, and is pressed to get even more colour and flavour (called press wine), whilst another portion has the removed and the wine is left to mature (free run wine.) You might find wines on the market that say “free run wine” on the label, and this is what they are talking about.
In many cases, however, the press wine and free run wine is then blended together, and left to develop in oak barrels, or vats, or tanks, depending on whether the winemaker wants to add more flavour.
There are many other reasons why wines taste the way they do – the types of grapes, where they are grown, how they are picked, whether the wine is aged in oak barrels – but skin contact is one of the key differences between red, white and rosé. By understanding this, we can start to better understand things like sulphites, fining agents, and what makes a wine sweet or tart, bland or flavoursome, and more or less alcoholic.
All these things can make the challenge of choosing wines so much easier. By understanding why you like a wine, you’ll find negotiating a restaurant menu or supermarket aisle a lot less daunting. And you’ll sound like you really know your wines, too!
Happy drinking, wine aficionados,
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