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White Wine Fermenting Procedures

by Staff Writer - B. Shaughnessy | February 08, 2012

When thinking about winemaking, one can be disillusioned by the sheer amount of steps involved within the winemaking process. Combined with this is the fact that for the different types of wine, differences exist within the production procedures. The process of fermentation is not exempt from this rule. Differences in fermentation processes can be seen for both red and white wines. Recognizing these differences is critical in the understanding white wines.

The biggest difference between red wine and white wine production is that the grape skins are removed from the must prior to fermentation of white wine. Due to this fact, the fermentation of white wines is simplified as the issue of dealing with a floating cap--or chapeau --is avoided. Fermentation is also slightly different being performed at lower temperatures for the preservation of aromas. Finally, it is important to realize that aside from the differences mentioned earlier, many of the steps performed during the winemaking processes are similar between red and white wines. Different variables are used with white wine production and some of the winemaking steps are performed out of sequence when compared to red wine production.

Just as in red wine fermentation, additional procedures are used for the extraction of additional properties for the resulting white wine. In the case of white wine production, procedures ranging from the utilization of cool fermentation techniques to the process of sur lie are available and widely used. Prevention of oxidation is also a procedure not taken lightly with white wine production. The perils of oxidation can be readily detected in the resulting wine and as such vintners strive to keep oxidation under control.

One of the main procedures used in white wine fermentation is temperature control. Temperature control is a common procedure in the fermentation of any wine and must be continually monitored and adjusted. For white wine fermentation, temperature plays an important part. Vintners typically strive to perform white wine fermentations at lower temperatures. The main reason for this is at lower temperatures many of the aromas are preserved and find their way into the final wine. While technology has allowed vintners to ferment white wines at lower and lower temperatures, there is a threshold with respect to temperature & variety that should not be exceeded. This can be seen in the fact that white wines fermented at too low a temperature have familiar fruit aromas but lack a varietal character. Conversely, a high fermenting temperature will result in a white wine that is dull and again lacks character. As indicated earlier, the magic number for a fermentation temperature depends on the variety being fermented as well as the experience of the vintner.

In the traditional practices of white winemaking, it was the normal procedure to separate the skins of the grape from the juices as quickly as possible. The main reason for this is the fact that prolonged juice exposure to white wine varieties increases the chance of undesirable bitter flavors. This procedure is still practiced under certain conditions however with the modern understanding of the grape, the principles of grape skin contact are changing. It is recognized that many of the flavoring components are located within cells just under the skin of the grape. As these flavoring components are necessary for the production a quality wine, different skin contact procedures are used prior to clarification. Techniques now utilized include allowing newly crushed grapes to stand at low temperatures for several hours. Also used is the practice of allowing bunches of undamaged grapes to sit overnight before juicing. This allows the flavor compounds to diffuse within the grape while at the same time avoiding contact with the bitter properties found in the skins. Each of these techniques ensures that necessary flavoring components are present during and after the fermentation of the must.

When fermenting the must of any grape, the result is alcoholic juices and left over components. In red wine fermentation, the grape skins are left over along with various other components. In white wine fermentation, a deposit of silt is left at the bottom of the fermenting tank. This silt consists mainly of both alive and dead yeast cells as well as small particles of grape skins. With certain white wine fermentation procedures it is common to allow the recently fermented juice to stand with this silt. This aging process is known as sur lie and is used to add additional flavors to a wine. The process of sur lie can have a duration run of several months. During this time, agitation procedures known as batonnage must be employed to prevent undesirable characteristics from being introduced to the wine via the dead yeast cells. The end results of sur lie are additional qualities as seen with the toasty and nutty qualities found within Chardonnay.

There is no denying the damaging effects of oxidation and nowhere within winemaking is oxidation more visible than with white wine production. This is partly due to the fact that antioxidants found within red wine tend to retard oxidation. White wine has no natural safety net and therefore vintners must pay close attention to the threat of oxidation. The proper control of oxidation has led to vintners being able to produce white wines that are fruity and refreshing to drink. Procedures utilized to achieve this state of winemaking include pressing grapes in an oxygen free press, transporting juices in an oxygen free environment, regularly checking the integrity of pump joints and related plumbing, the proper use of antioxidants as well as proper tank storage procedures. Monitoring the level of dissolved oxygen is also very important. By systematically viewing the wine making process, vintners can effectively keep the effects of oxidation to a minimum.

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