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Hand crushing a bunch of Pinot Noir grapes

Winemaking: Red and White

grapes montana rae podcast red wine white wine winemaking Feb 22, 2022

Have you ever wondered how wine is made? It’s not exactly something they cover in school! If you’ve never had the process explained, I’m here to fill you in. There are so many decisions to be made and each has an impact on the resulting wine. Nonetheless, the basic steps of the winemaking process are fairly consistent. The decisions and variations address the condition of the fruit, facility, and style the winemaker is looking to achieve. 

I’m not a winemaker and I didn’t create this week’s content with the intention of it being used to guide someone in making wine! Like many of you, my passions lie in the study and enjoyment of wine, not production. That said, I think it's possible to achieve a deeper appreciation of things when we better understand what it takes to produce them. So, last October in 2021, I spent five days at Melville Winery working with the owner, Chad Melville, and his amazing team to process the grape harvest as it came in from the estate vineyards surrounding the winery. It was this experience paired with my past studies that gave me the insight to write this material.

Side note: I think I'll feel I've actually "made it" as a blogger/podcaster when people start calling me out for errors I've made inadvertently, so bring it on! I'm here to learn too!!

So, today I’ll take you through the basic process of making still red and white wine (“still” meaning non-sparkling). We will absolutely get into sparkling, rosé, orange, and fortified winemaking down the road. For now, I want to start with the basics. 

Let’s get into the details of the production, technological advances, grape anatomy, and the differences between red and white winemaking. I’ve also got a couple of great bottle recommendations at the end of the post for you!


Steps of Still Winemaking:

Harvesting, crushing/pressing, fermentation, clarification (fining and filtering), aging and bottling.

I’m a visual learner so I was excited when I came across these awesome diagrams depicting the white and red winemaking process from my friends at Carboy Winery in Colorado. These simple graphics do a great job of outlining the steps I’m discussing today.

We now have an overview of the steps that need to occur for white and red, but this is extremely general. As mentioned, winemakers have a great number of choices to make along the way. Some winemakers take a more hands-off approach where they may choose to minimize any human influence on the wine. For example, they may not use any oak or cultured yeast or added sulfur. Sometimes, this approach is referred to as “natural” winemaking (we will 100% have a post/episode about this soon!). In other cases, often in large production, inexpensive wines, there are situations where producers are adding any number of things to impact the flavor and consistency of the wines. Artificial colors, flavors, and even textures can be added! There are two ends of the spectrum. Today, we are discussing an operation that fits into neither category but is my absolute preferred approach as a consumer.

“Wine is both technical and simple. It’s both ancient and modern”. 

The Anatomy of a Wine Grape

Before we can get into the process, let's discuss the raw material that makes it possible: the fruit. The sugars inside of a wine grape are the key. Under the right conditions, yeast will convert the sugars in a grape into alcohol, resulting in alcoholic fermentation. The more sugar a grape has in it, the higher the alcohol in the finished wine. Remember our past discussions about climate? The cooler the climate, the higher the acid. The warmer the climate, the higher the alcohol. Why? Because warmer temperatures equate to riper fruit with more sugar. Think about fruit from tropical places. It's sweeter, right? More sunshine means more sugar.

Some grapes, like Pinot Noir, won't thrive in a climate that's too warm or too cold. Others, like Chardonnay, can manage in a wide range of environments.

Each grape variety has unique characteristics that impact the approach the winemaker must take. The diagram below gives us a picture of the anatomy of a wine grape from the outside in. The different components of the grape’s design have varying impacts on the structure of the finished wine. Thicker skin equals more tannin and phenolics while fatter, sweeter flesh means more alcohol.

Making Red and White Wine

Many producers will say, “winemaking begins in the vineyard”. Wine grapes are harvested either by hand or by machine. Of course, hand-harvesting is gentler on the grapes and a human has a much more discerning eye when it comes to what belongs in the bin and what doesn’t. Of course, anything done by hand comes with a labor cost. There are machines that can do the job also by blowing, shaking, or sucking the clusters from the vines.

Once the grapes are harvested, they come into the winery in bins. Upon arrival, they are sorted by the winemaking team to remove any unwanted clusters or debris that might have made its way into the bin. From there, the grapes go into a large machine that removes the berries from the stems using an auger. For red wine, a producer may choose to leave some or all of the stems in place and make the wine using "whole clusters". Like the skins, the stems have tannins and can contribute to enhanced structure in the finished wine.

The main difference between red and white winemaking:

Red wines are fermented in contact with their skins which give the wine its color. White wines are made by pressing the juice away from the skins right after the grapes are sorted and destemmed.

Red Wine

After the red wine grapes are sorted and fully or partially destemmed, they go into a large vat to ferment with their skins, seeds, and perhaps some stems. Refrigeration in the winery gives the winemaking team a bit more control over when the fermentation begins. If the environment is too cold, it won't take place until the team is ready.

Maceration is defined as the "softening and breaking down of skin resulting from prolonged exposure to moisture." To expose the skins to moisture, the berries must be crushed to release their juices. At first, the grapes and stems are solid enough to stand on (yep, that’s me!) and foot trodding is one of the more recognizable techniques (I love Lucy, anyone?). Over time, the fermentation breaks the solids down and the mash becomes more liquid than solid. At that point, if we're still doing things by hand, we transition to a process called “punching down”.

Remember when I said that refrigeration was a way of keeping the fermentation from starting? The fermentation creates heat and also expels CO2. The punch downs allow the heat and gasses to be released and also keep the solids wet and evenly incorporated with the juices.

Another way to do this with assistance from a machine is what’s called a pump-over. Here’s a link to a video you can check out if you’d like to see what this looks like!

Teaser for our sparkling wine discussion in the future: Champagne was discovered when then very cold cellar conditions caused the fermentation to stop. When the cellar warmed up in the spring, the fermentation started again after the wines had already been bottled, creating bubbles and intense pressure. Bottles exploded and batches were destroyed. This was considered a major problem and embarrassment to the region until they learned to embrace the quirk.

​Apart from the physical labor of making wine by hand and foot, there’s another important piece to the puzzle: the chemistry of wine. Winemakers monitor every facet of the transition the grapes undergo as they make their way to becoming wine. Throughout the fermentation, samples are taken daily to keep track of the alcohol, acids, and other measurable indicators of the progress. This data helps guide the team to make decisions about any amendments or additions they want to need to make to the batch.

Once the fermentation of the red wine is complete, it’s time to separate the wine from the skins and seeds. To do this, the team will use a hose to pump out whatever freerun juice is easily available and the rest, along with the skins and other solids, is left behind. The balance goes into a press to have the solids strained away from the juice. Below is the video I mentioned in the episode of the moment that Chepe, who is working the pallet jack, managed to save the hockey puck-shaped load of grape pomace from hitting the ground as it fell from the bottom of the press. Such a fun moment to capture!​

White Wine

Let’s bring it back to white winemaking. As you recall, the grapes come in from the vineyard, they are sorted and destemmed, and then they go directly into a press to have the juice separated from the skins. A large, cylindrical press opens at the top and grapes are poured inside where a large rubber bladder expands and presses the liquid outward against the grated walls allowing the juices to flow down into the tray below (graphic by Wine Folly).

The freshly pressed juice from Chardonnay grapes I tasted at Melville was amazing! It was sweet but also tart and reminded me of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Once pressed, the juice is pumped into a refrigerated tank where it rests, allowing any particles that made it through the grate of the press to suspend and settle.

For white wines, the fermentation can occur inside one of these refrigerated tanks or the juice can be pumped into an oak barrel or another kind of fermentation vessel. Refrigerated tanks create an environment for a slow, cold fermentation that preserves the delicate aromas of the wines. Oak barrels will impart flavors and textures leached from the wood.

Another thing that can impact the flavor and texture of white wines is leaving the juice in contact with the dead yeast cells or “lees”. We talked about this a bit last week during our Albariño Crash Course. This process leads to a softer texture and can help soften the acids in wine. If the wine is in contact with the lees during fermentation, it’s important that the winemaking team stirs the barrel periodically to ensure that the solids are redistributed throughout the liquid. This process is called bâtonnage and is done by inserting a metal stirring tool into the opening of the barrel and whisking the contents around inside.

Disruption Wine Company Chardonnay

Melville Chardonnay

Final Steps

​When the fermentation of the white wine is complete we essentially realigned with where the red wine is, having just been pressed away from the solids. At this point, the wines may be fined or filtered. They may go directly to the bottling line or, more likely, they will rest in barrel for anywhere from a couple of months to years before bottling.

For now, that’s it! I hope this episode paired with these visuals helps paint a picture for you of the winemaking process.

My experience at Melville Winery last Fall brought me so much appreciation and respect for the process of making wine by hand. Thanks to the amazing team at Melville for the life lessons! Stay tuned for next week’s show with special guest Chad Melville of Melville Winery!

- Montana Rae,
Certified Sommelier (Extra Amateur Winemaker)

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