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Winemaking 101

January 30th, 2014 No comments

Eberbach Monastery | Winemaking

How is wine made? Whether you’re a newbie wine aficionado who wants to get the  basics down, or  a seasoned collector in need of a quick refresher course,  read our step-by-step guide to find out how your favorite beverage goes from grape to bottle.

The Harvest

The last stage on the vine is the first step in the winemaking process. There is often a very small window between when grapes are underripe and when they’re too far gone, so the harvest is all about timing. The vineyard’s location, terrain, climate, soil, and age can all contribute to when the grapes are ready (as well as their taste). Winemakers use science and experience to watch and test their grapes so that they’re picked at the perfect moment. Grapes can be harvested by hand (which prevents oxidations resulting from damaged skins, but is expensive), or by machine.

Crushing and Destemming

After the grapes have been harvested, it’s a race against the clock to destem and crush them. Wait too long, and the grapes you’ve spent a year carefully cultivating will be useless. Winemakers often work through the night during this phase of the process.

The grape crushing is not only a physical process: it serves a chemical purpose as well. Crushing serves to split the grape skin and allow the juice, or “must” to begin to run out. As it does so, the sugar from the must mixes with natural yeast in the grape skin. The yeast consumes the sugar, turning it to carbon dioxide and — most importantly — alcohol. This is the beginning of the fermentation process.

During this stage, the grape stems are also separated from the must. And if the wine is intended to be white wine, the skins are removed as well. If it’s meant to be a red wine, the skins stay so they can provide color and tannins to the finished product.

Fermentation and Pressing

Fermentation is the step that turns what could be merely grape juice into wine. At this point, the wine is put into large stainless steel tanks, or sometimes oak barrels, which add certain (tasty) flavors to the finished product. During fermentation, the grape’s sugars turn to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The winemaker monitors the wine during this process, and may add sugar to bump up the alcohol levels, or acid if the wine’s acidity is low.

For white wine, pressing is done right after crushing, and for red wine, it’s done after fermentation. This process turns the grape solids left after crushing into a thick liquid that winemakers can add to the wine to improve its color and flavor.

Malolactic Fermentation

This additional fermentation isn’t used for all wines. When it is, the winemaker adds lactic acid bacteria to the wine so it can smooth out harsh-tasting malic acid by converting it into lactic acid. Most red wines, and some of the fuller-bodied white wines undergo malolactic fermentation to create a smoother, mellower final product.

Maturation 

For this phase, think barrels: they’re the most common vessel used for the maturation process. French and American oak are the most common choices for the pleasant flavors they impart to the wine. Oak barrels also allow tiny amounts of oxygen to enter and interact with the wine, serving to mellow out some of the tannins in red wine and contribute complex flavor compounds to both red and white wines. Some modern winemakers are beginning to use stainless steel tanks for this process instead of traditional barrels. Because they don’t interact with the wine, they can be a good choice for certain varietals, and as they don’t need to be replaced and are easy to maintain, they are more economical.

It’s during this time that the winemaker might also do a step called “racking,” in which wine is moved from one barrel to another. This serves to separate the wine from the sediments that collects at the bottom of the barrel, and that can negatively impact the wine’s flavor. It also exposes the wine to a bit of oxygen, which helps flavors develop, giving the wine complexity.

Fining and Filtering

When the wine is ready, fining and filtering are done. These processes remove most of the sediment from the wine. (Sediment won’t hurt you, but it’s unsightly and can have an unpleasant taste.) Filtering will remove bigger solids such as dead yeast. Together, the processes turn a cloudy wine attractively clear.

Blending and Bottling

If the wine is intended to be part of a blend, this is when that process takes place. Winemakers don’t blend wines only to improve their taste, but also to adjust their color, alcohol levels, tannins, aromas, or pH. It takes a lot of experience and a sophisticated palate to blend wines well.

Finally, the wine is portioned into bottles, and each one is topped with an inert gas (read: one that doesn’t react with the wine and change its taste) like nitrogen or carbon dioxide. The bottle is topped off with a screw cap or traditional cork. Now, they’re ready to be stored for further aging, or drunk right away. Cheers!

 

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How to Navigate a Wine List

January 15th, 2014 No comments

Even the most confident of wine lovers can get bogged down by a wine list that reads like a novel. Here’s how to safely navigate a restaurant wine-list and pick a bottle that’s sure to please everyone at the table.

Step 1: Choose a Color

Start by choosing between white or red by considering what you’ll be eating. You’re out to dinner, after all: the most important thing is that your wine complements your food. But feel free to throw that old “red wine with red meat, white wine with chicken and fish” adage out the window. A better method is to base your wine decision on your dish’s most prominent flavor. A chicken breast simply poached in white wine, for example, calls for a white wine that won’t overpower the flavor. The same chicken breast topped with a Marsala sauce, with its reduced wine and hearty mushrooms, is bold enough to stand up to a red.

Step 2: Balancing Act

Next, consider the heartiness of the dish you’re eating: the dish and the wine should match each other in body or richness. One of the best ways to do this is to consider your sauce. The simple buttery, garlic-y wine sauce in a bowl of linguini with clams plays well with a white wine with some heft, like a California Chardonnay. A pasta primavera with a simpler olive oil-based sauce, however, needs the lighter touch of something like a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Step 3: Match like Flavors

Here’s where you can get really creative. You can match the flavors and aromas in a wine to ingredients in your dish. A dish spiked with verdant cilantro, for example, can go well with a white wine with herbal, grassy notes. A steak topped with a sauce studded with currants would pair perfectly with a Cabernet rich with berry flavors.

Step 4: Think about Structure

The perfect pairing will result in a food and wine match that’s perfectly in balance. Certain components of the food you’re eating can  increase or lessen the acidity, sweetness, and bitterness of  the wine you choose.

Acidic ingredients like citrus juice pair well with acidic wines, making them taste softer and better-balanced. However, if a wine is already balanced, acidic foods can make it fall flat. Likewise, the tannins in a wine interact with the fatty flavors in a dish. Rich foods like steak diminish the appearance of tannins in wine and make it taste smoother. Salty and spicy foods, on the other hand, interact poorly with tannins, and can make a wine taste harsh.

With these four steps, you’ll be able to successfully choose a wine to pair with any dish on the table. But as with all things wine, we encourage you not to feel limited. If you don’t like red wine, don’t let that stop you from ordering that porterhouse. After all, what matters most is that you enjoy yourself. Choose a wine you’d drink by itself, and you’ll always be happy.

See our recommendations for local San Diego shops that carry the wines we love!