Updated: Jan 9, 2022
Martin Luther said “man makes beer, but God makes wine.” Perhaps there was a bit of hyperbole there, or maybe he was just a wine lover like us?
Understanding the process of winemaking can provide a lot of clues into how a wine will taste. People study and practice their whole life to master this blend of science and art. But if we just grab on to a couple simple ideas, we can identify more of the wines we love to drink.
Fruit prep - Getting ready for the dance
There are two things to look for in this stage. The first is skin and juice contact. The skins in the grapes are the source for most of the flavor compounds. Keeping the skins in contact prior to fermentation is said to heighten the flavor intensity and complexity. A clue to look for is the term “cold soaking”, which means that skins and juice were kept together for some amount of time prior to fermentation.
Fermentation - On the dance floor. Fermentation is where the magic happens. It’s where yeast acts on sugars to create CO2 and alcohol, and where flavor compounds that give wines aromas of other fruit, herbs, earth and minerals are created. There are a couple good tasting clues to pick up from info on fermentation. One is the fermentation vessel.
The natural wine movement makes some noise about their fermentation vessel of choice - concrete. Stainless steel is a mainstream in most wineries, but it's now a trend for cleaner, leaner Chardonnays and other whites. And oak is still the winemaker's most used tool to introduce oxygen and the impact of wood during the fermentation process. Knowing about the fermentation vessels used in making the wine is a top Wine Tasting Hack.
The second important clue that you might pick up about fermentation is the amount of time the winemaker allows for the evolving wine to stay in contact with those flavor harboring skins. Now in whites, after the initial grape handling, skins are separated from the juice before fermentation. But in reds, juice and skins are fermented together. As a side note, rosé is a tweener. Sometimes it’s a short fermentation with skin and then continued without, and other times some amount of the fermenting juice is drawn off to continue fermenting as rosé leaving the remaining red to become more concentrated. This latter technique is called Sanginee.
But back to the dance floor. There are a couple of code words to look for to understand fermentation time skin to juice contact winemaker actions. The first is “whole cluster” fermentation. Typically done with varietals that are not that tanninic, like Pinot Noir and Grenache, rather than de-stemming all the fruit prior to fermentation, some amount is fermented stems and all. This slows down the fermentation which in theory enables the development of more flavor, and secondly leads to the extraction of more tannin from stems.
The second code word to look for is “extended maceration”. This means that the now fermented wine and skins are kept in contact for some period of time to continue to extract flavor and tannin.
Elevage - The after party
After a wine has been fermented and separated from the skins, but before it has been bottled, there is a period of time referred to as elevage. During this time wines may be stored in barrels and come into contact with oak.
There isn’t just one type of oak used in barrel aging wine. Noooo, that would be too easy. There are several types of oak used, of various ages and often in combination. Oak does two things to wine: it imparts flavors and it adds to and reacts with tannin.
The aromas and flavors from oak include cedar, clove and baking spice. Because oak barrels are heated or toasted to bend the staves and seal the barrels, there can also be toasted aromas of coffee, tobacco and smoke. As mentioned earlier, oak also has tannins so it can increase tannin in a wine, but oak tannins combine with grape tannin to form longer chain molecules that seem smoother or rounder. Here are the key clues that will get you through it.
Ok, so this was a longer flight with lots of info tastings. But understanding how wines are made can greatly improve your ability to identify what you like.
Remember to ask about how the wine was made when you visit a winery. I hear lots of wine ambassadors tell you they love a wine with hamburgers or pasta. That doesn’t tell you anything. But knowing how it’s made will give you some important clues. Look for the next blog post, we’ll be talking about how to taste a wine when you’re at that winery. Cheers.