EducateHow It's Made: White Wine 

How It’s Made: White Wine 

We all love a good white wine. White wine is notoriously easier to make than red wine, yet it still wows us all with its complex wine flavors. Let’s go through the process so you have a better understanding of how it’s made. There are many important factors a winemaker must decide on throughout this process including how long the skins stay in contact with the juice, clarity of the juice, fermentation temperature of the vessel, use of lees, malolactic conversion, and much more. Let’s dive into it! 

Step 1: Harvesting Grapes

A winemaker can use red or white grapes to make white wine since the skins are not used in production. However, most of the grapes are green or yellow colored for making white wine. (For instance, Chardonnay has yellow skins) 

Winemakers face many critical decisions regarding harvest, but the most important are when to harvest and how to harvest. When you harvest directly impacts the wine’s sugar levels, acidity, and overall flavor profile. While how you harvest (hand-picking or machine harvesting) affects the selectivity of each grape cluster. Sorting decisions can impact the wine’s outcome. Hand-picking usually ensures that only the finest grapes make it to the winery, while machine harvesting is a little less selective. 

Step 2: Pressing Grapes

Photo Courtesy The Greek Wine Experience 

Freshly picked grapes go immediately to the winery where they will be pressed and turned into grape juice. The pressing stage is a pivotal moment in wine production where winemakers choose between various methods such as traditional basket presses or modern pneumatic presses. The time grapes are pressed, and the pressure applied during pressing are carefully considered as they affect the texture and flavor profile of the juice. These decisions set the foundation for the finished wine’s overall structure and mouthfeel. During this stage, grapes also receive sulfur dioxide to stop bacterial spoilage before fermentation starts. 

Step 3: Juice Settles 

Photo Courtesy of Wine Anorak 

Once the juice is separated from the skins and pressed, winemakers allow the sweet grape juice to settle in its tank and cool down. This settling process isn’t just for aesthetics – it plays a vital role in the winemaking journey by removing suspended solids that could introduce bitterness to the final wine. I always think of it as the juice taking a little vacation to relax and smooth out any tension it has.

Winemakers focus on achieving clarity in the juice during this step. Choices include cold settling, the use of enzymes, or other clarification methods to remove any remaining solids. The clarity of the juice becomes a visual representation of the winemaker’s commitment to creating a pristine canvas for the upcoming fermentation.

Step 4: Add Yeast  

Photo Courtesy Wine Grapes Direct 

After the juice has been settled/pressed, a winemaker will either add yeast to the juice (similar to the kind you use when making pizza dough or bread) or in more natural methods, it may spontaneously occur in the juices. Spontaneous yeast on grapes happens naturally and usually, the wines are more complex in flavor. However, many winemakers opt for adding commercial ready-made yeasts to control the fermentation more. Using commercial yeasts makes it easier to have a consistent flavor in wines so it’s used a lot for mass production. 

Step 5: Alcoholic Fermentation

Photo Courtesy of Wollershiem Winery 

After the winemaker has made a decision about the yeasts, they must face decisions related to fermentation temperatures. Temperature control plays a pivotal role in determining the speed and style of fermentation, influencing the transformation of grape juice into wine and shaping its character. At this point, the winemaker has complete control over sweetness levels. If a winemaker desires a slightly sweet or “off-dry” wine, they can halt the yeast’s consumption of sugars, often achieved through super chilling. The remaining unfermented sugar is referred to as “residual sugar,” contributing to the intentional sweetness of the wine.

For white wines, the fermentation process typically spans about 14 days. To preserve delicate floral aromas, white wines ferment at cooler temperatures compared to red wines. Moreover, it’s rare for white wine to undergo fermentation in an open tank, a measure taken to minimize oxygen exposure that could potentially compromise the nuanced aromas in white wine.

After initial fermentation, winemakers can also choose to put white wine through a secondary fermentation process called Malolactic Conversion, which often gives the wine a buttery note (Think Napa Valley Chardonnays!)

Step 6: Racking off Gross Lees

Photo Courtesy of Glamorous Gourmet 

As the wine matures, winemakers decide when to rack off the gross lees, the sediment at the bottom of the fermentation vessel. This choice influences the wine’s clarity and stability. Winemakers carefully time this step to balance the desire for added complexity from extended lees contact with the need for a refined and polished final product.

Step 7: Newly Made Wine/ Blending

Photo Courtesy of Oryana

Emerging from the intricacies of fermentation and lees management, the newly made wine reveals its initial characteristics. Winemakers assess the early flavors, aromas, and structure, considering potential adjustments or interventions to ensure the wine aligns with their vision.

Step 8: Clarifying 

Photo Courtesy of wine.co.za

In the winemaking process, the wine initially has a certain level of cloudiness. To address this, many winemakers introduce clarifying or “fining” agents to eliminate suspended proteins that contribute to the wine’s opacity.

Common fining agents include casein (a derivative of milk) and egg whites. (Contrary to popular belief, not all wines are vegan!)  However, there is a growing preference among white winemakers for bentonite clay due to its vegan nature.

Following this, the wine goes through a filtration step to reduce the risk of bacterial spoilage. It’s noteworthy that certain white wines, including the unique category of orange wine, bypass the fining and filtering processes. In these cases, winemakers have to be patient and allow the wine to naturally clarify itself. 

Step 9: Bottling/Packaging

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images/Wine Enthusiast 

The final steps bring us to the packaging decisions. Winemakers choose bottle types, closures, and presentation styles that align with the wine’s character. These choices contribute to preserving the wine’s integrity and enhancing the consumer’s experience, from the moment the bottle is opened to the last sip.

Step 10: Wine for Sale

Photo Courtesy of Wine Flavor Guru

The culmination of the winemaking journey results in white wines ready for sale. Each bottle is a testament to the countless choices made by the winemaker throughout the process. The wine is now a sensory masterpiece, inviting consumers to savor the fruits of the winemaker’s scientific expertise and artistic vision. Cheers to the winemakers who transform grapes into the extraordinary white wines we enjoy!

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