Crush Me

Crush Me: How different styles of wines are made.

I used to think that wine was a product that was manufactured just like all other things that came in bottles like soft drinks or fruit drinks. I thought that some company that owned a big factory would pump out millions of bottles of Sunny-D on one production line and wine of some kind on another. It never occurred to me until I was of legal drinking age that wine was something different and was more natural than I had previously thought.

Wine is made by fermenting grape juice using yeast, just like bread. Because air-born yeast attaches itself to the skins of grapes, they naturally contain all of the ingredients needed to turn itself into wine. If grapes are picked and left in a container of some kind (like a bucket) for a while, the skins will break apart and the yeast will start eating the sugar in the juice, turning it to alcohol. It's very likely that the first wines ever made were done accidentally just like that.

So are all wines made the same way?

Excellent question! Glad you asked. There are 6 main types of wines and all of them are made slightly differently. They are White wine, Red wine, Rosé wine, Sparkling wine, Dessert wine, and Fortified wine. They are all made from fermented grape juice and were all largely discovered by accident.

Here's a general overview of how these wine styles are made;

White wines are made from white or pink (aka grey) grapes. The grapes are picked, removed from the stems, and then turned into juice (pressed) right away. The clear juice is pumped into a tank where the wine maker or assistant will add in the yeast, which will then go about doing its thing converting the sugar into alcohol. It usually takes a couple of weeks to turn the whole batch into wine. In the modern winery, this wine will be stabilized (meaning that it won't turn cloudy or go "off") and filtered before it is bottled and then sold.

Red wine is made almost the same way but with one difference. Instead of juicing the grapes and sending only the juice into the tanks to ferment, red grapes are sent into the tank with their skins and all! Since most grape juice is actually white, even in deeply coloured red grapes, all of the colour and flavour in red wine comes from the skins, not the juice. To get the wine to be red in colour, the juice is soaked and fermented with the skins to extract all of those flavours and colours. The grape skins act like tea leaves - the longer the tea bag is in the pot, the more deeply coloured and flavoured the tea becomes. The same is true for red wines. Red wine is generally soaked with the skins for at least a couple of weeks, depending on the grape variety and wine maker's plan.

If red wine gets more red the more it soaks, then if it soaks for a short time it would be less red, wouldn't it? That's how most rosé wine is made. It starts out just like a red wine but then the juice is drained away from the skins to another tank after a short time - 2 hours, 6 hours, or maybe 12 hours, depending on the variety and wine maker's plan. It's not the only way to make rosé, but it is one of the most common in BC.

Sparkling wines (like Champagne) are made just like white wines (even using red grapes) but instead of bottling and selling them right away, they are put into special bottles with more sugar and yeast. They are then allowed to ferment again inside the bottle. When wine ferments anywhere, it creates carbon dioxide which dissipates into the atmosphere. But when wine ferments in a bottle (which is the traditional or Champagne method), the carbon dioxide dissolves into the wine itself and only becomes visible when the cork is popped. Not all sparkling wines are made this way. Some are fermented and pressurized in a tank and then bottled under pressure while others are force carbonated (like soft drinks). The carbonated wines are the least expensive, the bottle fermented wines are the most expensive, and the tank fermented wines are somewhere in the middle. In BC, most of the sparkling wines are made in the traditional way.

Desert Wines are not made everywhere or in near as large quantities as regular wine. BC and Canada have become world famous for the quality of the desert wines produced here. Icewine is the most prestigious, expensive, and strictly produced and it also happens to be the sweetest. Late Harvest wine is less sweet than Icewine, but is also easier to produce. The only difference with dessert wines is that they are very sweet compared to regular wines. They use the same grapes, but instead of harvesting them at the normal time, they will be left to hang on the vine until after the winter sets it. The grapes will dry slightly so the water will evaporate leaving the sweet nectar behind in the grape. Icewine is picked when the water is frozen so only the sweetest sugar is extracted when the grapes are pressed. Canadian Icewine is one of the most stringently regulated wine products in the world and for good reason. Tasting a real Icewine next to a "Vin Glacé" from California (where grapes are frozen in massive freezers before they are pressed) will show you just why Canadian Icewine is as protected as it is. There is no comparison with the real thing.

Fortified wines (port-style wines) are usually red and have started out just like normal red wine. But before letting the yeast ferment all of the sugar away, the wine maker will add a neutral-tasting alcohol which stops the fermentation and leaves the natural grape sugars behind. This leaves a strongly flavoured, robust wine that is perfect for after dinner sipping. These wines are not produced as common in BC but there are some fine examples out there.

While it seems like a fairly simple process to make wine, wine makers are faced with a daunting number of decisions for each kind of wine based on the quality of the vintage, their own education, experience, and the winery's house style. If wine makers sometimes seem preoccupied at wine tastings, it's because they have a lot to think about. And right now as the Okanagan Valley gets into full swing for the grape harvest, every one of those decisions will affect the wines that you taste from the 2013 vintage.

Here's to a great vintage! Cheers from wine country!

This article was written by our wine writer, Luke Whittall.  Luke is passionate about wine and writes and develops podcasts on his website