How is Wine Made? The Step-by-Step Behind your Favorite Bottles
Before electricity, before gunpowder, before the alphabet, before the wheel; before all of it, there was wine. Why? Well, I like to believe it’s because our ancestors know how to prioritize. More likely, it’s because wine is simple. The process of winemaking is simple.
At the most basic level, wine is made through a rather uncomplicated equation of growing grapes and fermenting them. That’s how it started, thousands of years ago when wild grapes were buried in clay jars.
Just grapes and time.
While wild grapes stewing in a clay jar may not be a winemaker’s dream any longer, the simplicity of the process is still a thing of inspiration. In fact, this concept of letting great grapes speak for themselves is the cornerstone of our favorite type of winemaking.
That’s right, we’re picking favorites. But we have every right to. Because as with most things, we’ve learned that there’s a better, more planet-friendly way to make wine. A way that not just protects the planet, but heals it. Our friends at Brooks Wine are experts on this front, and they are teaching us all about how it’s done.
So, without further ado, let’s talk about how wine is made. Not just any wine. The best wine. A no-pesticides, low intervention, and tasty-as-hell wine. Biodynamic wine.
Meet Our Partner: Brooks Wine
Brooks Wine believes making exquisite wine is more than an art, it is an act of stewardship and deep honor for the Earth, its peoples, and the connection between the two.
As a certified Biodynamic vineyard, Brooks works to maintain the delicate balances of nature and tend to all aspects of their vineyard, from the tiniest insect to the grapes themselves. They’ve cultivated a self-sustaining ecosystem with a diverse cast of plant and animal species in lieu of additives and harmful pesticides.
As part of their commitment to nature, they use only natural ingredients and practices throughout their entire winemaking process. As a Certified B Corp, Brooks’ commitment extends to every piece of their business, ensuring the production of their top-rated wines is one that is good for the taste buds, the environment, and the community.
How Is Wine Made: The Basics
Wine production, in all of its forms, can be boiled down to a few basic steps:
1. Grow the wine grapes
You may be thinking, “Whoa. I just came here to study up on backyard hooch, not to become a farmer.”
I respect that. But remember: good wine starts in the field. If the root of the process is grapes and time, it makes sense that modern vintners across the globe agree—great grapes are essential to great wine.
And great grapes come from great soil.
In fact, it’s in the rolling vineyard that some of the most important decisions are made, like what type of wine you’re making. The Brooks Wine vineyard, for example, lies in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. They selected pinot noir and riesling as their focus varietals specifically because those are the red and the white varietals most expressive of place in their locale.
And their intentionality on this front has passed the test of time. Today, they have riesling and pinot planted back in 1973 which are some of the oldest vines in the Willamette Valley.
But we don’t just mean varietals when we talk about important decisions. We’re also talking bigger picture. The decision of conventional vs. sustainable wine starts in the dirt too. Given that this decision defines the vineyard-planet relationship and the nutrients available to the vines that give us our main ingredient, it’s critical in deciding grape quality as well.
Take biodynamic wine for example. This supremely good-for-the-planet, good-for-humans style of winemaking takes a holistic approach to agriculture. It relies on creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that allows for low intervention tactics with the help of organic compost concoctions and a million sustainability-minded details that prioritize ultimate soil health.
All of that starts waaay before the bottle. The soil is actually the recommended first stop for us in understanding wine for beginners and experts alike! That’s why we recommend using farming practices as a North Star when you’re wondering how to choose a good wine.
2. Harvest the grapes
This is the step where the carefully nurtured grapes are finally plucked from the vine.
For vineyards in the northern hemisphere, wine grapes are typically harvested in the autumn. The southern hemisphere is typically harvesting wine grapes in the early spring.
Around this time, the farmer or vintner will closely monitor the grapes until they reach the desired acidity, sugar content, and pH. Of course, this ‘perfect balance’ varies between white grapes and red grapes, as well as the winemaker’s preferences and the type of wine they’re producing.
Getting the level of maturation exactly right is particularly important for biodynamic wines, as they won’t be seeing any additives in the fermentation or aging stages. Brooks looks at each indicator to determine whether grapes are ready, but the overriding decision for them is how the grapes actually taste and if the phenolic ripeness is ready (phenolic ripeness is related to the ultimate taste and mouthfeel of the wine)
This is precisely why biodynamic wine prioritizes the healthiest soil for grapevines. In the end, those grapes gotta speak for themselves.
In the biodynamic world, harvesting wine grapes can be done by hand or machine harvester so long as no chemicals are used. Often, this process will take place at night, when the temperatures are cool and the grapes are more likely to maintain their structure and composition.
Another factor? Weather. It’s a delicate dance of meeting the perfect flavor balance sometime after hot, hot heat and before freezing temps set in. Moderate weather conditions are preferable since the extremes can devastate a harvest, so winemakers will have a diligent eye on the forecast around this time of year.
3. Crush the grapes
This is where the rubber meets the road for our little grape friends. In this stage of the winemaking process, they abandon their berry form to become a juice; or in wine terms, a must.
Crushing the grapes comes with a few decisions: a machine crusher or by hand? through the destemmer or with the stems left on? light crushing or full press? Whatever the winemaker decides, it better be decided quickly. Grapes are the most vulnerable in that state between vine and vat.
This step in the process is also the first big distinction between red wine, white wine, and rosé wine. Long story short—red wine stays with its skins after becoming a juice, white wine is immediately pressed to separate the grape skins from the juice, and rosé falls somewhere in-between.
By creating a fundamentally perfect environment for the grape to grow, winemakers like our friends at Brooks mitigate the need for intervention in the post-harvest processing. But, one strategy Brooks uses to avoid artificial manipulation is blending. By sourcing high-quality grapes from other vineyards, Brooks has a larger grape artillery to get that perfect balance in each bottle. Teamwork makes the dream work!
4. The fermentation process
Grape juice grows up during fermentation. From a meager smushed grape rises a phoenix. A phoenix called wine.
You might be inclined to call this step of the process magic, but the truth is—it’s a very natural, organic thing. If you’re creating biodynamic wine that is.
Conventional winemaking encourages the addition of a yeast strand at this point to kickstart fermentation and manipulate the desired end result.
Biodynamic wines, with their low intervention philosophy, let nature do the work for them. Rather than killing off the wild yeast and injecting their own, they’ll let the natural yeast do its thing. This is just another benefit of putting in the hard work while the grape is still on the vine.
Wild or otherwise, the yeast has a job to do. It gets to work immediately breaking down the natural sugars in the grape juice. Fermentation begins, the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, and wine rises from the ashes. (It’s a phoenix, remember.)
The ferment is where the alcohol levels are decided. If it is a sweet wine, they’ll stop fermentation before all the sugar is converted. A dry wine, on the other hand, results when fermentation continues until all the sugar is converted to alcohol.
Like every step, the fermentation process is subject to a careful eye and natural tweaks aimed at perfecting each batch. Another Brooks strategy: fermenting at the lowest temperature possible. Think about the difference between simmering and boiling something. Brooks prefers the slow extraction of flavors, keeping it as natural as possible. This typically creates a longer window for fermentations which they also believe brings more nuance and complexity to the wine.
Hotter temperatures get you through fermentation more quickly, but may be taking more from the wine in the process—not a trade-off Brooks is down for.
5. Clarifying the wine
Once the wine is wine, it’s time to make it fine wine. In this stage, winemakers clarify the wine through a process of fining and filtration. Sediment, dead yeast cells, and other unwanted material are filtered out of the wine, leaving behind the crisp, clean product that we know and love.
Racking essentially means moving the wine from one container to another to filter out sediment created in the winemaking process. Conventional winemakers often utilize egg whites or a fining agent called bentonite at this stage to help clump and sink the sediment, separating it from the wine.
Biodynamic winemakers? Not a chance. Vineyards like Brooks’ don’t fine, thus their wines are also vegan. Instead, they employ the most gentle filtration method, cross-flow filtering, to stabilize the wine and make sure all fermentation is done. This is a critical step since some, like Brooks’ famous riesling, have residual sugars, and after all this attention to detail, we don’t want those re-fermenting in the bottle while they wait to get into your glass!
6. Aging and bottling the wine
The final step gives each winemaker’s wine its little je ne sais quoi. Wine can be aged outside or inside of the wine bottle. It can age in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. It can age for days or centuries. It can be sealed with a cork or screw cap.
All of these, small, stylistic decisions are ones that only the winemaker can make. For biodynamic wine, it’s one of the only times that the winemaker will make decisions for the grape. Once it’s aged (or not!), the wine is considered ready for you, a jazz playlist, and a bubble bath.
How is Red Wine Made?
As you now well know, red wine starts in the field. The wine varietal—merlot, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon—decides what kind of wine it’ll be. In biodynamic winemaking, this is particularly important as the grape is carefully selected to match the natural composition of the soil and climate in which it’s grown.
Grapes growing in an environment tailored to their specific needs will be the most resilient and tasty.
From there, the basic steps stay the same with just a few key differences. The largest of which being, like I mentioned, that red wine grapes ferment with their skins.
Tannins, which lend the complex bitterness signature of red wine, comes largely from the skins and seeds of the grape. Keeping the skin and seeds in contact with the juice for an extended amount of time contributes to this full-bodied flavor, as well as the signature burgundy color.
Since juice is denser than grape skins, the skins will rise to the top forming a layer on top of the tank. This prevents oxygen from getting to the wine, but the juice needs oxygen for the yeast to convert the sugars. So, winemakers like over at Brooks will “punch down” the skins, bringing together that yeast-oxygen combo for seamless fermentation.
How is White Wine Made?
As you might imagine, white wine demands less time with the skins. Far less time in fact. For white wine varietals—like chardonnay, pinot grigio, and sauvignon blanc—the grapes are pressed before fermentation.
The grape juice and skins spend no time at all together, resulting in the crisp, light flavor profile characteristic of your favorite whites.
Keeping the clear, glass-like consistency is the toughest part of making white wine. Highly susceptible to oxidation and defenseless against unwanted particles, this is where conventional winemakers often lean on additives and preservatives.
Biodynamic winemaking relies on process rather than additives to control color and consistency. Take Brooks Wine’s well-loved riesling for example—they quickly move it from harvest to press (separating the skin from juice), and then into a stainless steel vat for aging and fermentation.
How Does Wine Become Alcoholic?
Biodynamic winemaking is all about letting the land work its magic with as little intervention as possible. So, how then does the wine become alcoholic? Also a natural process that merely requires the right environment to get the process going.
Wine becomes alcoholic during the fermentation phase. Alcohol, in any form, is a product of fermenting natural sugars with yeast. As it ferments, the sugar transforms into carbon dioxide (et voilà!) alcohol.
Let Us Drink Wine
If there’s one thing you leave with, let it be this—great wine is made in the field. The process of making wine is simple; it’s been done for thousands of years. If you start with a good grape, good wine will follow.
It’s why biodynamic wine has stolen our heart. The link between climate change and agriculture means our farms have planet-saving (or destroying) abilities. The notion that you can make better wine with better soil; make better soil for a better planet; and have your favorite bottle to pour in celebration because of it? Well, there’s nothing there not to love.
Grow Ensemble Contributor
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