Wine is not all one thing. Winemaking processes different from grape to grape, from region to region, from high-end to low-end, certainly from style to style. To break down this complicated subject at least a little bit, we will cover winemaking by dividing it into five general areas:
- Red wines
- White wines
- Rosé wines
- Sparkling wines
- Fortified wines
As we have already discussed, you can make a white wine from red grapes by preventing any contact between the grape skins and the juice, since the color comes from the skins. If you allow some skin contact by briefly macerating the red grape skins in the juice (say, 24 hours), you arrive at a lightly colored, pinkish wine. The term “blush” wine applies to some very pale colored wines. Some lightly colored wines made by slight skin contact are termed “white” wines as in “white Zinfandel.”
Another method is the saignée process, a component in red winemaking (saignée means bleed). The winemaker bleeds off some of the lightly colored juice so the skins, seeds, and stems that remain contribute to a more concentrated color, flavor and tannins in the remaining red wine. Rather than waste the runoff, the winemaker produces it as a rosé.
In the vin gris (gray wine) process, the wine is made from certain red grapes. The solids and the juice are immediately separated after pressing without any maceration. The wine is not actually gray but a very pale pink. French law requires that this method use lightly tinted red grapes like Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais).
Another way to produce a pink wine is to subject the wine to a de-colorization process using activated carbon. This process is avoided by fine wine makers since flavors and aromas tend to also be stripped along with the color.
The actual blending of finished white and red wines is not permitted in France, but there is an exception: pink Champagne may be produced by blending.
In its broadest sense, the term “sparkling wine” indicates any wine in which bubbles rise to the surface after opening. Beyond this general definition, the category is broad. We can categorize these wines by country of origin, by base-grapes used, and certainly by method of production.
The European Union defines a wine as “sparkling” if it contains at least three atmospheres of pressure. Wines fitting in this category include French Champagne (usually six atmospheres), mousseux and crémant (also French), spumante (Italian for fully sparking), sekt (German). Semi-sparkling covers 1 to 2.5 atmospheres, using terms such as frizzante, pearl, pétillant and spritzig.
In fermentation of grape juice, we say for convenience that the yeast metabolizes the grape sugar and creates alcohol, but in actuality the process also generates carbon dioxide. In still winemaking, we vent off the carbon dioxide (taking care that it does not collect in pockets around the winery where the odorless gas has the potential to quickly kill winery workers). In sparkling winemaking, we use a number of methods to carbonate the wine. We may generate the carbon dioxide in a sealed bottle, in a large sealed tank, or we may simply inject it into the wine.
The traditional method of sparkling wine production used to be called the méthode champenoise, but the French have put a lid on this term in their ongoing effort to assure that the term Champagne and any variation thereof applies only to wines produced in the region of Champaign in northeast France. No other EU country may use the term Champagne or méthode champenoise. Some American winemakers still use the term, but this disallows their wines from being sold legally in the EU. The best American sparkling wine producers, a number of which are owned by French Champagne houses, label their top of the line products “Traditional Method sparkling wine.” Of course, no one can legally limit the “look” of the standard dark green Champagne bottle with its gold-foil covered neck. The traditional method is used for Champagne in Champagne, for high end sparkling wines in other regions of France (where the term used for the wine is often crémant), and for sparkling wines elsewhere. In the northern Italian region of Piemonte, you can find traditional method gems that are rarely known outside the region.
In the traditional method, the grape juice first ferments into a still wine that is specifically constituted to undergo further steps. This wine will be sharp and highly acidic, and not very appetizing to drink. The different Champagne houses take great pains to blend these base wines so that they consistently reflect the “house” styles. The wine then undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. The winemaker adds yeast and a tirage of sugar into each bottle, seals the bottle with a crown cap, and patiently waits for the second fermentation to occur, on a bottle by bottle basis. You might be starting to think here that the final result will be expensive, and you would be right. This second fermentation in a sealed environment creates the bubbles as the carbon dioxide is trapped and forced to integrate with the wine. It also creates sediment, called lees, which must eventually be removed. To accomplish this, the bottles are stored necks slanting down in racks so that gravity will coax the lees down to the neck area. The bottles will then be put through remuage (riddling) in which each day the individual bottles are turned and adjusted slightly so the lees slide gradually into the neck without roiling the delicate wine. Experts used to do this laborious task by hand, but many wineries today have large machines called gyropalettes for this task. Non-vintage Champagne must be stored this way on the lees for a minimum of fifteen months, vintage Champagne at least three years.
Once the in-bottle fermentation and lees storage is complete and the sediment is safely ensconced in the necks of the individual downward-facing wine bottles, the wine must be disgorged. The winemaker chills the necks of the bottles so they freeze into a chunk of ice, turns the bottle upright, flips off the crown cap and watches the pressure in the now carbonated wine push out the precipitate. There is now a quantity of wine missing. The winemaker will fill each bottle with still wine and also add a precise amount of sugar, the dosage. The wine added is called the liqeur d’expedition. The level of sugar added will affect the sweetness level of the final wine. The wine is bottled for the last time with a special cork and a protective wire cage.
The ancestral method is older than the traditional method. It may also be called the méthode rurale, or méthode artisanale. Here the wine undergoes a first alcoholic fermentation and then is bottled before the fermentation is complete, continuing to ferment in the bottle and creating carbon dioxide bubbles one the bottle is sealed. There is neither disgorging nor dosage, hence the final wines may be cloudy in appearance. It takes a great deal of skill to produce sparkling wines using this ancestral method. The wines tend to be rural and somewhat obscure.
The transfer method is something of a hybrid between methods. The wine undergoes its first fermentation, is bottled to accomplish the second fermentation, and then bottles are emptied into a tank, giving the maker a chance to adjust the blend. This method reduces the chance of bottle variation inherent in the traditional method. The wine is rebottled, with a dosage added. This method is used often for sparkling wines that eventually go into unusually small or unusually large bottles, and is popular in Australia and New Zealand.
The charmat method, of Italian invention, is also called the tank method or Martinotti method. It is used in Asti and Prosecco wines to give a much lighter effervescence than Champagne, and to preserve delicate fruit flavors. The wine is fermented in a stainless steel pressure tank. Once the juice ferments properly, the wine is filtered to remove the yeast, and then it is bottled. The longer the fermentation time, the more delicate the bubbles and aromatic qualities.
The soda method is an industrial process that injects carbonation into still wines. Bubbles here are large and lack the delicate beading of sparkling wines produced using any of the above methods. These wines quickly go flat.
A fortified wine is a wine to which brandy or some other type of sprit is added at some point in the production process. The result is a wine that is higher in alcohol than a standard still wine. Depending on production process and wine style, the fortified wine might or might not be also sweet. Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala are the best known fortified wines. Fortification of wine originally started as a means to preserve wine over long sea voyages. Consumers eventually came to appreciate the subtleties of flavor and texture created in these wines (often by the sea voyage itself), and industries developed to produce them for the public, often under British leadership.
Although widely imitated around the world, true Port can only be produced in the Oporto region of Portugal from grapes that grow on difficult terraced slopes in the Douro valley in Portugal’s north. The wine is fermented but prior to complete fermentation the producer adds a neutral grape spirit called aguardiente to stop the fermentation before all the sugar has been metabolized by the yeast into alcohol. This leaves sweetness in the wine and also adds alcohol to a total of about 20%. Contrast Spanish Sherry where spirit is added only after the wine has completely ferment to dryness. Any sweetness in Sherry comes from the addition of sweetener later on. Hence Port is always sweet, but Sherry may or may not be sweet.
Tawny Ports are aged in wooden barrels that allow oxidation to promote gradual evaporation. The wine turns golden brown during this process and takes on a nutty character. The official age categories, as stated on the label, are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years. Aging in bottle is irrelevant.
A Colheita Port is a single vintage aged in tawny style for at least seven years. This wine shows the actual vintage on the label instead of the usual Tawny Port indication of age. Even though Colheita Port shows the vintage on the label, it is not Vintage Port, which ages primarily in the bottle.
Ruby Port is the inexpensive, mass-produced variety. It is not aged.
Vintage Port is the wine all the fuss is about. Only every few years, perhaps three times a decade, individual port producers (called shippers) feel their base wines are good enough to declare a vintage. A vintage port will go through its first aging process in barrels or stainless steel for a maximum of two and a half years. Because of this short aging period, the Vintage Port retains its deep ruby color and deep fruit flavors. The important aging process goes on in the bottle and is often measured in decades, or even centuries. Because bottle aging develops a crusty sediment, Vintage Port must often be decanted before serving. A Single Quinta Vintage Port is a wine whose grapes have been sourced on an individual estate, or quinta.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a relatively new Port product, created from wine originally slated for vintage production, but one that did not succeed in reaching vintage Port status due to lack of consumer demand or other reasons. The LBV will go through a longer barrel or container aging period than standard vintage port, perhaps four to six years. The wine may be filtered before bottling, which removes the sediment and obviates the need to decant the wine before serving. Typically, LBV Ports will not improve with age in the bottle.
The first thing you need to know about Sherry is that it has an image problem. While certainly makers outside of Sherry’s original home in southern Spain can and do produce credible Sherry-like wines, others have been responsible for spewing out highly sweetened, poor quality wines labeled Sherry. The sweetness here often serves the purpose, as it does so often in corner-cutting wines, of masking winemaking defects.
Real Sherry-from Spain is not always sweet. The types called Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado,
Palo Cortado and Oloroso are most commonly completely dry, with a maximum of 5 grams of sugar per liter. Sherry labeled “dry,” however may be much sweeter, as well as Sherry labeled “medium” and “cream.”
Because of that image problem, many wine commentators consider good Sherries some of the best values on the wine market today.
The name Sherry derives from the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera in the province of Cadiz, part of the Andalusia region on the southern coast. Most Sherry is produced from the Palomino grape, although some sweet dessert Sherries have components of Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes.
Let us take a moment to distinguish Sherry from that other Iberian fortified wine, Port. Port is fortified with spirits before fermentation is complete, leaving unfermented grape sugars in the wine, so Port is always sweet. Sherry is fortified after the grape sugars have been fermented to dryness. Sweetness in Sherry, if any, is added in a subsequent step, so some Sherries are sweet.
Also unlike Port, Sherries do not generally have specific vintage years. This is because Sherry is aged in what is known as a fractional solera system. The finished Sherry ends up a mixture of ages, the average age increasing the solera, a collection of stacked barrels, gets older. Solera means “on the ground” in Spanish, literally the lowest level of barrels. Sherry is bottled from these oldest barrels, the second level is used to refill the lowest level, the third level the second level, and so on. Newly fermented wine is put in the highest level. The barrels are not always actually stacked in the Sherry aging house, which can be immense; someone just keeps careful track of which is which.
Fino Sherry is the palest and driest. When Fino ages, a covering of a yeast called flor (which is derived from the local environment) develops, preventing contact with the air. A variety of Fino that ages in the sea air of the town of Sanlúcar de Barramedia is called Manzanilla.
Amontillado is initially aged under flor but is then exposed to oxygen, producing a darker sherry than Fino but one still lighter than Oloroso.
Oloroso is aged with oxygen contact longer than Fino or Amontillado, producing a dark, rich wine with alcohol as high as 20%., as opposed to 15-17% for the others.
Amontillados and Olorosos are naturally dry. Sometimes they are sweetened, but if so they must be labeled using a variation of the term Cream Sherry, which always connotes sweetness, and the term Amontillado or Oloroso may not be used.
Palo Cortado starts out as an apparent Fino, but then either the flor dies on its own or is killed by filtration. The result is more like an Oloroso than a Fino or Amontillado.
Jerez Dulce (sweet Sherry) is made either by fermenting dried Moscatel and/or Pedro Ximenez grapes or by starting with a dry Sherry and adding sweet unfermented grape must. The wine is syrupy thick and nearly black.
Cream Sherry is a sweet blend of several sherries, commonly Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez.
Portugal’s Madeira islands west of Morocco have for hundreds of years been a stopping place for sea traffic between Europe and the Americas and between Europe and the East Indies. Madeira wine dates back to the early age of exploration when the islands supplied wine for ships. Wine would spoil on long voyages, and so mariners and producers would add distilled alcohol as a preservative, following the example of Port. The taste caught on. George Washington was enormously fond of Madeira.
Wine that made the trip through the hot tropics and back went through a taste transformation that drinkers found desirable. After a period during which casks of Madeira were sent on voyages not to transport them but for adding the benefit of this slow heating process, the winemakers developed techniques to heat process the wine right on the islands in warehouses. Madeira is now made in several different styles.
The red grape Negro Mole accounts for 85% of Madeira today. The four white varieties, which are identical to the present-day names of Madeira wine varieties, are Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial. Bual and Malvasia, which go into the sweeter wines, commonly ferment on their skins to extract phenolic compounds to balance the sweetness. The others are separated from their skins before fermentation. As with Port, fortification with neutral grape spirits is used to stop fermentation before all the yeast can metabolize sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. The earlier in the fermentation process this fortification is accomplished, the sweeter the resulting wine.
The artificial heating is called the estufagem process, and it makes Madeira unique. Three main estufagem techniques are employed.
- In the Cuba de Calor method, used for the cheapest wines, wine is bulk aged for a minimum of ninety days in heated stainless steel or concrete troughs at approximately 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The Armazém de Calor method calls for storing casks of wine in a dedicated steam heated room for up to a year.
- Canteiro is used for the most expensive wines. Barrels are stored in rooms that are naturally heated by the sun for up to a century.
During the estufagem process, especially those that take longer periods of time, the wine slowly oxidizes, bringing on a characteristic tawny color and the taste that is distinct to Madeira. This taste cannot be described. Buy a bottle. It will keep.
Madeira Styles (from dry to sweet):
- Sercial is very dry, with hints of almonds and high acidity.
- Verdelho is off-dry, with smoky aromas and flavors and high acidity. The style called “Rainwater” is a particularly light version of Verdelho.
- Bual gets sweeter. This wine is dark, full-bodied, with raisin notes.
- Malvasia (Malmsey) is decidedly sweet, with coffee and caramel flavors, but as with all Madeira the sweetness is greatly balanced by compensating acidity.
Wines made from the above four “noble grapes” commonly carry age statements on their labels. “Finest” Madeira is aged at least three years. It is usually used for cooking. “Reserve” is aged five years, “Special Reserve,” ten years, and “Extra Reserve” at least fifteen years. “Frasqueira” Madeira is wine of a specific year, aged at least nineteen years in cask and a year in bottle. The Madeira winemakers may not use the term “Vintage” since the Port people have exclusive rights to the term.
Marsala is an Italian fortified wine from western Sicily. It was created by English wine merchant John Woodhouse in 1773 who adapted some of the indigenous Sicilian techniques to create a fortified wine to compete with Port. The wine became extremely popular, and the British navy ordered huge quantities of it. Unfortunately, in modern times, Italian wine authorities were quite lax about regulating Marsala quality and a great number of mediocre Marsalas flooded the international market. For years, Marsala was best known as a cooking wine, but the quality is now on the rise.
Because Marsala comes up so often in restaurant menus, it pays to stress that it should not be confused with the Indian culinary term “Masala,” with no “r,’ connoting a mixture of hot spices. Chicken Tikka Masala and Chicken Marsala are dramatically different dishes, although reach for the wrong spice and you could conceivably merge the two.
Marsala is fortified with distilled alcohol either during or after fermentation depending on style desired. There are three styles (colors) – Ambra, Oro, Rubino. Ambra and Oro are made from white grapes, a blend of Grillo, Cataratto, Inzolia (Ansonia) and Damaschino. Rubino wines are produced from Perricone, Calabrese (Nero d’Avola), and Nerello Mascalese.
- Sugar level:
- Secco – maximum 40 g/l residual sugar
- Semi-Secco – 41 g/l – 100 g/l
- Dolce – minimum 100 g/l
- Aging requirements
- Fine – 1 year in cask (17%abv)
- Superiore – 2 years in cask (18%abv)
- Superiore Riserva – 4 years in cask (18%abv)
- Vergine – 5 years in cask (18%abv)
- Vergine Stravecchio/Soleras Riserva – minimum of 10 years in cask
Vins Doux Naturels
The French have their own styles of lightly fortified wines called vins doux naturel. The production of these wines is centered in Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France. VDNs are produced in a manner similar to Port. Neutral grain spirit (up to 10% at 90 proof) stops yeast action before fermentation is complete, leaving residual sweetness in the unfermented juice. Alcohol level varies depends on the regulations of each individual appellation but it is usually at least 15% abv.
VDNs Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Muscat de Rivesaltes, and Muscat de Frontignan are all made from the white Muscat grape. Banyuls and Maury are made from Grenache Noir. The Grenache VDNs are produced in both oxidized and un-oxidized styles. The Muscat versions are kept from oxidizing to maintain their delicate aromas and flavors.