While the answer to the question “what is wine?” is simple (wine is the fermented juice of grapes or other fruits), the results can be simply amazing.
From this simple and naturally occurring product come a mind-boggling range of wines, styles, flavors, and alcohol levels. And that’s where the fun begins of tasting, learning, and exploring more about wines.
Our simple answer also raises a few other questions about what wine is, so grab a glass of your favorite wine and read along for a bit more about where wine comes from.
What grapes are used to make wine?
The grape species Vitis Vinifera is used for making wine. When compared with the red and green table grapes that make great snacks, wine grapes have seeds, thicker skins, and are generally smaller and sweeter. There are thousands of Vitis Vinifera varieties around the world.
These include everything from white grapes like Albarino, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Pinot Grigio, to red grapes like Pinot Noir, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel.
(Want to learn more about how a Malbec differs from a Merlot? Head over to our stories about grape varietals.)
How are grapes grown?
Grapes grow on grapevines, which have small woody trunks like a tree or shrub. Mature vines are about three to four feet tall.
Depending on how the grapevine is trained, it can look like an overgrown brambly shrub (these are called headtrained vines) or be planted in symmetrical rows with wire strung between each vine and shoots pruned each year for a very tidy and efficient plant (these are called trellised vines).
They are perennial plants, meaning they produce one crop of grapes each year, then go dormant. The next spring, new leaves emerge, followed by tiny grapes that mature into the ripe wine-making fruit.
The climate where the grape is grown has a huge effect on the resulting wine. Some grapes thrive in cooler climates and some in hotter climates. And while grapes may grow in less-than-ideal locations, they may not reach their potential to create good wines that represent that grape variety.
Curious about the secret life of vines? Read more about grape growing and viniculture.
How is wine made?
Winemaking is actually a natural process – grape juice will start fermenting on its own, using the natural yeasts that are on grapes or in the air in the vineyard. The outcome of flavor is unpredictable, but nature will create wine all by herself when given the basic ingredients.
Luckily for all of us who enjoy wine, over the past 7,000 years or so, humans have learned and perfected the art of guiding fermentation. This is called winemaking: the process to create wines that have certain flavors, styles, or other characteristics we enjoy when we taste wine.
In a nutshell, here’s the process.
Grapes are harvested in the fall by cutting the cluster off the vine. When the grapes arrive at the winery, the winemaker decides whether to ferment the whole cluster, to de-stem the entire bin, or to use a percentage of whole cluster fruit. And actually, if a winemaker uses whole-cluster fruit, that decision was made early in the growing season to ensure the best clusters would remain whole.
The first step in winemaking is a pre-sort to remove any bad clusters (moldy, shriveled) and large sticks, leaves, and other vineyard materials. If the grapes are destemmed, they’re gently shoveled into a machine that pulls the grapes from the stems and crushes the grapes.
White wines usually remove the wine skins quickly —within minutes, typically. Red wines leave the grape skins with the juice during the fermentation to add structure and flavor to the wine.
From there, the crushed grapes and wild run juice are fermented, either in big bins or fermentation tanks. Depending on the wine, this takes a week or two, or up to several weeks.
Once fermentation is done, red wine is pressed off the skins and all wines are moved into oak barrels or concrete or stainless steel containers for the aging process. This can last a few weeks or more than a year, depending on the grape and the winemaker’s plan for the wine.
When the wine is finished, it’s bottled and ready for us to enjoy.
Wonder how wines can taste so different? Read more about barrel making and fermentation to see how they affect wine flavors and body.
What’s a single varietal wine? And what’s in a blend?
When you see a bottle using the name of the grape – like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay – this means the bottle contains only that grape varietal (and perhaps a small percentage of other grapes for balance).
You also might see a wine labeled “red blend” or using a fun or descriptive name, like Carnivore, Predator, or Hot to Trot. These are generally proprietary blends of different grapes that the winemaker chooses to achieve a certain flavor or style.