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The Science of Winemaking

by Staff Writer - B. Shaughnessy | January 03, 2012

When discussing wine and the various characteristics that make wine wonderful, it is easy to overlook the processes used for making wine. This is mainly due to the fact that wine consumers are far removed from the extensive techniques used for wine production. Originally, winemaking techniques were somewhat of a hit and miss affair. Winemakers simply crushed grapes to collect the juices and allowed natural fermentation to produce the wine. Today with the better understanding the winemaking process, new technologies have been developed to better control winemaking from start to finish. By understanding the sciences concerning winemaking, vintners are producing better high quality wines.

Without a doubt, winemaking is a science as much as an art form. It is an art form in that a vintner must create something truly special and unique, a wine that when tasted excites passion and adds enjoyment to the taster's experiences. However, while an artistic attitude is needed for a vision, science is required for the successful production of that unique and wonderful wine. A winery would be in serious trouble if they created a wine that could not be reasonably produced. This is where the science of winemaking comes into play.

Winemaking was known to the ancients and was probably discovered as an accident of nature. Grapes have long been known to be an excellent food source. It is probable that at some point in history grapes or grape juices were left standing in an environment where natural yeasts began to ferment the juices into alcohol. When tasted, the transformed juice would have presented itself as something new and exciting to the taster. In this hypothesis, the taster would recognize this discovery and work to replicate it. From these humble beginnings came the discovery of wine.

While winemaking was known as an art throughout history, no one knew exactly why grape juice would transform into wine. This lack of understanding led to the production of wine to be viewed truly as an art form. As such, controls for aiding the development of wine as well as controls for compensating natural variables were simply unknown. This led to situations where the quality of wine varied greatly from year to year. Only in mid 1800s did humankind finally have an understanding of the science of fermentation. During this time, Louis Pasteur discovered that fermentation was the result of microorganisms.

It is important to realize that natural processes are completely responsible for winemaking. These natural processes start with the growth of the grape and continue until the resulting wine is consumed. Of critical importance is the process of fermentation. Before fermentation can occur, grapes must be grown and juiced. The resulting grape juice is sweet from sugars naturally synthesized due to photosynthesis as a function of grape plant growth. Fermentation then occurs when yeasts convert the sugars of the juice into alcohol. From this point, the control of the fermentation process is critical. If not kept in check, the fermented grape juice will continue to break down with vinegar eventually being produced. The final result of the vinegar breaking down is water and carbon dioxide. Traditional winemaking techniques were more at the mercy of these natural processes and as such, consistency with the quality of wine was a problem. However with modern winemaking techniques, many of the natural processes can be controlled at multiple points throughout the winemaking process.

The science behind winemaking has been researched over the last forty years. Due to the research of countless individuals as well as the application of the research, winemaking today is a precise and controlled endeavor. Science has shown that a systematic and scientific approach for all processes yields the best and most consistent quality wines.

Outside of fermentation, the wine making process can seem complex. It is true that at a macro level, the process of winemaking is similar for all types of wine. Viewing the micro level of winemaking processes, specific procedures are employed for specific types of wine. For example, the techniques used to produce a sherry are vastly different from the techniques used to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon wine.

Quality winemaking begins with vineyard management. Techniques such as rootstock selection, soil types, available water, sunlight exposure, pruning programs, etc must be taken into consideration. From the successful management of vineyards comes the proper balance of the constituents of the grapes themselves. Sugars, acids, minerals, flavor components and proteins must be well balanced for the production of a fine wine. At this point it is important to realize that even with the most favorable conditions in the vineyard, failure to control oxidation can lead to ruin. Oxidation is a naturally occurring reaction where oxygen combines with molecules and destroys them. This can be seen in picked fruit aging and eventually decomposing. The next step in the winemaking process is the juicing of the grapes. Juiced grapes are known as must and the production of must has its own set of parameters that must be taken into consideration. Fermentation comes next and after this, specific winemaking techniques for specific wine types. Finally, stabilization techniques are employed with filtration and additives being used on the final bottled wine.

Winemaking today more than ever relies on science and the application of scientific principles to the entire winemaking process. As shown in the previous paragraph, the sheer amount of steps found in the winemaking process mandates a scientific approach for the production of wine. Without this approach, too many variables would exist which would lead to the damage of the final produced wine.

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