What is wine, how is it produced and what are the phases of the annual vineyard cycle
According to European law, wine is defined as the result of the fermentation of grapes and grape juice, which is obtained from the pressing of the grapes, which are naturally rich in fermentable sugars (fructose and glucose) which then will be transformed by yeasts.
The annual cycle of the vineyard
The cycle is linear and is repeated every year. It is a similar process for all fruit plants. The vine transforms the water, mineral salts, phosphorus, and nutrients into vital lymph (sugar) to grow thanks to chlorophyll photosynthesis. In winter, you prune and decide what shape the plant will have and how many buds. In spring, when the temperature rises, the first buds open, the leaves grow back, flowering occurs after at least fifty days.
There is pollination, another fundamental moment: an excess of rain could cause dripping, reducing flowers and therefore less fruit. In June, the bunch took shape with the berries, which, although green, are already formed and distinct.
In the summer, the clusters harden, grow and color (veraison) until the harvest period arrives. If you produce sparkling wines, you will need very acidic grapes, not very ripe, and at the end of August, you will harvest.
If you grow Nebbiolo, a vine that is slow to ripen, the harvest will be postponed to October-November, with the fog to keep you company.
Wine is the result of the fermentation of grapes
This is wine, it is not magical, it is not mysterious, but only the result of a simple fermentation, once it was a food, today an object of veneration. But be careful. You can also ferment apricots or peaches or pineapples, a practice, perhaps aberrant for our culture that has always been based on an almost sacred consumption of wine, but which exists all over the world, where the so-called fruit wines are ubiquitous.
We tell you this to demystify wine, to remove any poetic ambition: good winemakers leave nothing to chance, not even producers of “natural wines.” Each action corresponds to a reaction and everything is studied. Where, how and which vines to plant, soil analysis, the presence of a river, the sea, the density of the vines, the exposure: all this can be summed up in the concept of terroir. That is the conditions that characterize a given piece of land.
Why is the Côte d’Or the Pinot Noir mecca? Because of the mixture of marl of marine origin, pebbles, limestone and marine fossils have alternated over the centuries. But also the exposure, the altitude, the mists that attack the vineyards below and the cold that grips those on the top of the hills. If there are crus that the Cistercian monks have been talking about in this area since 1100, there must be a reason. That piece of land is exceptional, but you also need the suitable sensitivity to enhance it. This is wine when a winemaker understands his vineyard and knows how to interpret it. Think that in total, the 30 Grand Crus of Burgundy are 550 hectares, of which 356 for the reds. If you prefer an Italian figure, the hectares dedicated to the production of Barbaresco are about 680.
But let’s go back to the plant, to the vineyards for a moment, to say one simple thing: first of all, behind every wine, there is a person with his sensitivity, his choices, his vision. Yes, because, although there is a lot of talk about natural wine and the naturalness of wine, in reality, a simple vine plant would expand for half a hectare, it would expand enormously to cover as much of the ground as possible to find a foothold and climb towards the sun. Viticulture is the domestication of the vine. A forcing. It is pruned short, bent and castrated to make it pump all the sugar in three clusters and it is imposed on it the exact opposite of what nature tells it to do. Once upon a time, 1000 stumps per hectare were planted. Now there is a tendency to put plants under stress with a density of 10,000 plants per hectare to make them dig as hard as possible because there must not be too much water too many nutrients. With the correct dose of drought, the peel thickens and the flavors are concentrated.
It is not an attack on natural wine. We have already talked about it a thousand times. We love “true natural wines,” but calling them natural wines is a syntactic error that borders on deception for consumers.
Let’s close the parenthesis and now let’s go back to the fields. We had arrived to have splendid clusters on the plants: the moment is delicate. The balance within the grape is in the balance. The more ripe grapes, the more the tartaric and malic acids decrease. On the contrary, glucose and fructose increase sugar maturation. Quite different from the phenolic one, namely that of polyphenols, anthocyanins and tannins, the fundamental elements that give flavor, color and texture to wine and help preserve it from oxidation. Once a grape was tasted to check the sugar content of the grapes, today it is much more precise, and tools such as the refractometer are used.
As mentioned before, the harvest time depends on the grape variety and the type of wine to be produced. For example, even a late vine like Pinot Noir can be harvested early, when it is still very rich in acids and then be vinified in white or rosé to produce Champagne and great Italian sparkling wines.
Let’s see the bunch in more detail. Which parts are really needed to make the must?
The stalks add green flavors and unwelcome tannins. Once many winemakers put them into the must, today they are eliminated, even if some producers leave them to add strength and tannins to the wine. For the reds, machines such as the crusher destemmer are used: at first, it eliminates the stalks and then crushes the bunches. The same goes for the grape seeds, they would only bring unmanageable tannins, so they are discarded in the whites and not crushed in the reds.
The peel is essential for reds, first of all for the bloom, that opalescent substance that covers the grape and is very useful for preventing spontaneous yeasts from slipping away. But above all, it is helpful because the maceration is made on the skins. They give color, flavor and aromas, while the pulp brings sugars, minerals, vitamins and acids, especially tartaric acid.
On the other hand, for white wines, unless you want to produce a macerated white, we tend to use membrane presses, which gently crush the bunches without breaking the skins and stalks, in such a way as to obtain a very pure free-run must, without the slightest trace of tannins. Yes, tannins also exist in white wine; they are not a red wine’s prerogative.
What is the must made of?
At this point, we have the must, composed primarily of water and sugar, which, as the grapes are pressed, is stored in the vats, which can be containers such as amphorae or made of steel, concrete or wood. Let’s recap: in whites, we have a clean must. In reds, the skins are still present. Well, the time has come to ferment the must to obtain the real wine. You can inoculate yeasts (autochthonous or chemical) and start the fermentation or leave it to the yeasts (spontaneous fermentation) present on the clusters, in the air, in the cellar when crates with grapes arrive. Yeasts transform sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, but there is a big difference between red and white wine. The white ferments and it is up to the winemaker whether or not to control the temperature, then the wine, when it has completed its refinement on the lees, is deprived of the lees, stored, possibly clarified and filtered.
However, in the red, the skins remain and play a fundamental role in releasing aromas, tannins, and substances. On the surface, a hat is formed, a layer of skins and pulp that protect the wine from oxidation, which is why red wine is often produced in open vats in the old way. By breaking the cap, the wine is enriched, the flavoring elements come back into circulation, so once or twice a day, the batonage is carried out, in Italian fulling, to keep it from drying out too much. Some wineries use mechanical tools already present in the tanks, but they don’t have the same charm.
When the alcoholic fermentation is over, the wine can be racked into wood barrels, in amphora, in whatever you want. Or still remain in contact with the skins and usually, a second fermentation takes place, the malolactic one, which transforms the rude malic acid into lactic acid (more delicate) but has a slight cheesy hint. The skins are pressed and the aging process is finally carried out.
Also, in this case, you can use containers of various materials and the wine rests until the winemaker is satisfied with the product. Those who make micro-vinifications and keep separate cru will go ahead and bottle the individual plots, while others put all the wine together again to enrich the final product. After any clarification and filtration, they bottle and let it rest for a few months to balance the wine. The aging period in the bottle is essential to give the wine time to develop all its charm, so don’t rush.
We will return to filtration and clarification, which focuses on heated disputes between conventional and natural winemakers. Many to clarify the wine do nothing but pour it so that by gravity, the impurities fall to the bottom: there is no need to use hallucinating substances such as albumin and other junk.
Ideological issues do not interest us. What is certain is that the world of wine, for now, rests on a monstrous gap, namely the total lack of transparency of the label. If albumin is used for clarification, they don’t tell you. If they add bentonite, you don’t know. If they add tannins, they don’t tell you. If they use citric acid, they won’t tell you. In short, at the level of protection, it is a mockery, a real scam for the consumer. Think for a moment how paradoxical it is: wine should be grapes, a derivative of it, but we don’t know what’s inside. On the other hand, if you read the label, you will know perfectly how many saturated fats and palm oil contains Nutella or how many sugars and dyes such as the carcinogen E 150d have aberrant and chemical products such as coca-cola. Let’s not talk about the silence on sulfites, but we’ll be back.