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Winemaking: The Six Basic Types of Wine

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In this chapter, you'll learn all of the wine-making terms that you'll need to know in order to select the correct wine for you. This chapter covers the basic kinds of wine and the basic characteristics of each.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

In this chapter:

  • Learn how winemaking techniques determine the wine type

  • Understand the differences in production, terms, and best uses with foods between dry red and white wines

  • Discover how Chardonnays become buttery, why Beaujolais Nouveau is grapey and yeasty, and how sparkling wines and Champagne are made

  • Learn about producing pink wine, including rosé, blush, or blanc de noir

  • Appreciate the versatility of fortified wines, including Porto, Sherry, Madeira, Vermouth, and Marsala

  • Understand each of the eight methods used to produce sweet dessert wines

  • Find what a bottle’s shape and color may tell you about the wine it holds

The winemaker has many options once he or she decides what type of wine to produce. The decisions made in the winery will determine how dry or sweet, fruity, aromatic, complex, concentrated, oaky, and high in alcohol and body the finished wine will be.

As you learned in Chapter 2, "How Grapes and Vineyards Determine Taste, Style, Value, and Food Affinities," the key to a wine’s taste and style will depend on the grape variety or blend of grapes used, where the grapes were grown, and the quality of the harvest each vintage year. However, a wine’s type or category, such as dry red or sparkling wine, is determined by the winemaking techniques used to produce it.

The six basic types of wine are dry red, dry white, rosé or blanc de noir, sparkling, fortified, and dessert wines. In this chapter, you learn how these six basic types of wine are made and, as a result, what to expect in the taste of each. Along the way, I will dispel some of the wine misinformation that may have been handed down to you by well-meaning friends. For example, there may be some truth to the tale that wine may act as an aphrodisiac—but too much of a good thing will certainly defeat that purpose!

To do list

  • Study the role and origin of yeasts, grape sugar, and sulfites in the fermentation of wine

  • Understand the definitions and difference between free run and press wines, brandy, and liqueurs

Winemaking Basics

Wine is defined as the alcohol beverage obtained from the fermentation of freshly harvested grapes. The basic process of winemaking has remained unchanged—yeasts that grow on all grape skins automatically ferment grape juice into wine when the grapes are crushed. We call this mixture of grape skins immersed in their juice the must, and we call the period they are in contact maceration. Skin contact or maceration is particularly important for the production of red wines, because the juice inside all grapes is clear. The deep color of red wines must be extracted from the black grape skins.

During the alcohol fermentation, natural fruit sugar in the grapes is converted into equal parts of alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeasts. Heat is released in the process, which is why most delicate white wines are fermented in stainless steel temperature-controlled fermenters—so they don’t "cook."

The level of alcohol produced during fermentation depends on the ripeness or sugar content of the grapes and when the yeast or winemaker stops fermentation. Table wines (suitable for drinking at the table with meals), by definition, receive their alcohol from fermentation only. They have 7% alcohol by volume (such as some German wines or Italian Lambrusco) to 15% alcohol by volume (such as some California Zinfandels). This is the upper limit for fermentation because the yeasts die when they produce this level of alcohol. Most dry wines average 11% to 12% alcohol, but many full-bodied dry red or white wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah and Chardonnay, typically have 13% to 14% alcohol content.

Yeasts are what give grapes their dusty look, called the bloom, which consists of the wine yeasts (best for fermenting wine), and wild yeasts (which are hard to control and may produce unpleasant odors and flavors). Commercial yeasts, cultured and freeze-dried from famous wine areas such as Montrachet in Burgundy, France, are added to begin fermentation in modern wineries. In addition, grape skins contain Acetobacter or "vinegar bacteria" (discussed in the following section).

Sulfites in Wine

Unfortunately, the vinegar bacteria on grape skins will immediately spoil the new wine once it is exposed to the air, and wild yeasts must also be eliminated before they can ruin the aroma or taste of the wine. Modern winemakers follow a centuries-old tradition of using sulfur dioxide and other sulfites to kill the wild yeasts and vinegar bacteria and inhibit the growth of other molds or bacteria in the finished wine. Sulfites also stop oxidation (browning) of the wine and preserve the wine’s flavor during aging and distribution. Without some added sulfur dioxide, we’d have a lot more spoiled bottles of wine on the market.

The amount of sulfur dioxide added is very small—usually no more than 60–125 parts per million for fine cork-finished dry red and white wines—and strictly regulated by our federal government. Even if no sulfur dioxide is added to a wine, fermenting yeasts will automatically produce it from the inorganic sulfates in all grape juices; so virtually all wines sold in the U.S. are labeled "Contains Sulfites."

Free Run Wine, Press Wine, Brandy, and Liqueurs

Making wine begins with the grapes, which are usually planted in areas where other crops wouldn’t grow. Grapes like to struggle in poor soils, which force them to grow deep roots and conserve their energy by producing just a few bunches of high quality grapes. In fact, it is said that, in Bordeaux, God created grapes and roses because they are the only two things that can grow on such stony, unfertile ground. A rose bush is planted at the end of each row of grapevines in Bordeaux because the same conditions allow both to prosper.

Véraison ("vair-ay-zon") is the part of the ripening period when grapes change color, especially black or red grapes. All grapes start out as unripe, hard, dark green berries. It isn’t until they ripen in the sun that white varieties will turn golden and red varieties will turn deep purple. Winemakers decide when to pick the grapes based on the ripeness or natural sugar content, which is measured right in the vineyards. What most wine books don’t tell you is that the leaves of the grapevines also change color. At harvest time, the leaves of white grape varieties turn yellow and the leaves of red grape varieties turn red. This is how you can tell what is growing in any vineyard late in the season.

The finest wines are made from the first pressing of juice from the grapes called the free run wine, while less expensive wines are made from second or third pressings called the press wine. Press wine is harsher and accounts for the difference in smoothness between fine and inexpensive wines, although some fine red wines may have a small amount of press wine added for extra color, body, and structure. What is left over after all the juice has been pressed from the grapes is pomace (a dry mass of skins), pips (grape seeds), and yeast that can be used as a fertilizer for the soil of the vineyards.

Brandy by definition is distilled wine. It can be made anywhere grapes are grown. In Italy, grape brandy is called grappa. The finest examples are made in fine wine areas such as Barolo in the Piedmont or Tuscany. In France, there are three types of brandy, and Cognac is the most prestigious and costly of these. Cognac is made north of Bordeaux from white Ugni Blanc (French Colombard) grapes grown in the chalky soil of the finest vineyards or sandier soils. The dry white base wine made from these grapes is distilled in copper pot stills and then aged in oak barrels for many years, creating "libraries" of old Cognacs. The second type of French brandy is the darker, grapier Armagnac made south of Bordeaux and aged in black oak barrels. The third type of French brandy, called Marc, can be made in other wine areas, such as Bourgogne or Burgundy.

Brandy is also called an eau de vie, meaning "water of life," and can be the dry distilled spirit of any fruit. Kirschwasser, an eau de vie made from cherries, is used when making fondue. Liqueurs are always sweet, flavored spirits. Many liqueurs are based on brandy, or other spirits, that are then flavored with herbs, fruits such as raspberries, coffee beans, or orange peels—and then sweetened. They are not dry like brandy or eau de vie.

To do list

  • Learn how tannins form in red wines

  • Understand the benefits of aging red wine in oak barrels

  • Look for concentrated fruit quality in bargain red wines

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