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Wine production

Robert Russell: Red wine production

Red wines are generally more complex, richer and heavier, with hints of spices and herbs, as well as non-vegetal characteristics, generally identified as mineral or flint. White wines can be sweeter and lighter and have easily identifiable fruit flavors and aromas. This complexity comes at a cost.

Red wines are more difficult and more expensive to make. After harvest, it is common to separate materials other than grapes, during a sorting process carried out on a vibrating table or conveyor belt that prepares the grapes for crushing and destemming. The traditional crush had been accomplished for centuries by tapping the foot, reminiscent of the famous and one of her favorite Lucille Ball episodes, “Lucy’s Italian Movie”.

Today, the world of wine crushes grapes with machines, generically called crushers, destemmers. With red wine, some processes include using whole bunches with the stems, or unmashed berries alone, or other variations. When making wines such as Syrah and Pinot Noir, the use of whole berries promotes carbonic maceration; and the result is light red wines with a more fruity taste and milder tannins.

In an oxygen-free environment: the berries begin to ferment from the inside. Eventually the grapes end up crushing under the weight of the alcohol they produce. The stems left in the juice favor a more complex structure of the wine. A good wine maker who leaves in stems and other materials will sort the grapes and juice again. Small producers can simply pour the juice and grapes into a colander. Finally, removing the stems prevents bitterness.

Red wines generally undergo maceration before fermentation. This helps extract rich colors and complex tannins. For many years, maceration was a coincidence based on natural yeasts adhering to the skin of the grapes. Perhaps fifty years ago, in Burgundy, a technique called cold soaking became fashionable. Used mainly for the production of Pinot Noir, the grapes soaked in their extracted juices, without fermentation due to lower temperatures.

Subsequently, throwing out some of this juice encourages a stronger influence of the skins with a greater proportion. History suggests that the practice rose to prominence in Burgundy, when cold temperatures at harvest time meant naturally cold-soaked wines, if it was cold outside the cellar. As a result, fermentation often took several weeks. It’s become an accepted tradition, but while some winemakers think it’s an effective way to develop desirable flavors, others say it’s ineffective. With fermentation and maceration, the skins produce phenolic compounds, the chemical compounds that affect the taste, feel and color of wine.

Most of these phenomena in wine come from the pulp, skin, seeds and stems of the grape. Without the skins, the juice would be a dull, almost clear product. As the wine ferments, the juices develop, a “solid must” stopper which inhibits the extraction of colors and taste. Such a ceiling can be broken; or the reassembly of the wine while pumping the red wine from the bottom of the vat. The spray on the cap of the fermenting wort covers the skins so that the carbon dioxide rises to the surface.

Other producers break the plug with a tool resembling a boat paddle, periodically. When the process is complete, the best quality juice pumped from the vat becomes a fine vintage wine. The juice that stays squeezed out of the cork, mixes with other wines to form a cuvée, or maybe in a second label wine, maybe not even bottled under the same brand. It can also sell, in excess, to producers of bulk wine.

Top quality red wines are usually aged in some type of oak barrel, whether old or new: or French or American oak. These variations determine the amount of oak flavor imparted, each respectively. The maturation period can range from a few months to a few years. Over longer periods of time, this process includes the occasional movement of juice from one barrel to another and periodic refilling to replace any evaporation.

Before bottling, the wines are transferred to a final barrel, where they are usually filtered or fined to remove any debris. Any wine worthy of aging will eventually reject sediment. So, when drinking a good wine with a certain age, the last ounce of the bottle may not be drinkable, it is sometimes the case.

Stay healthy and well done

You can contact Robert Russell at [email protected]


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Amanda C. McCaskill

The author Amanda C. McCaskill

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