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Wine is a popular modern beverage and it has been produced for centuries in many parts of the world. Today the grape vine is cultivated for wine production in more locations and conditions than at any other time in history. The variables involved in its production are numerous and have now been researched and refined to a very high level. But despite the march of science, there are some universal principles that are the same today as they were centuries ago.
Following harvest, grapes are taken to the winery where they are de-stemmed, crushed and pressed. Depending on the style of wine to be made, different techniques are employed to manage the amount of contact between grape skins, flesh and juice. Generally speaking, skin contact is essential for red wine making and the grape juice is fermented with the skins and then pressed to separate the skins from the wine, whereas only few white wines benefit from a period of skin contact before fermentation.
Every wine relies on the basic act of fermentation which involves the conversion of sugar, released from the grape juice in the form of glucose and fructose, to alcohol. Yeast is the agent of fermentation and these tiny creatures process the natural grape sugars, producing aroma and flavour compounds, alcohol, gas (carbon dioxide) and heat.
Some winemakers select specific dried yeasts and others prefer to rely on naturally occurring yeasts found on grape skins and winery surfaces for fermentation. Although the simple act of fermentation is the same, the choice of yeast, ambient or selected, can have a significant impact on the character of the finished wine.
The control of heat produced during fermentation through temperature-controlled tanks is one of the most significant advances of modern winemaking, enabling the winemaker to have a more regulated environment within which to direct the duration and intensity of fermentation. The size and type of fermentation vessel is also important as it determines the volume to surface area ratio of the fermenting wine and the accommodating tank (or barrel), and therefore the influence it may have on the finished wine. Sizes range from small buckets to large tanks holding millions of litres and fermentation vessels can be variously made of oak, concrete, stone, glass, clay, synthetics or stainless steel.
Following the fermentation process, when all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the yeast cells die out. These dead yeast cells, or lees, are separated from the liquid in a process known as racking. Red wines also need to be separated from the skins following fermentation by pressing.
Once fermentation is finished wines are prepared for bottling. Some wines are bottled very soon after fermentation and others are matured for a period of time, usually in oak barrels.
Bottling is an important part of the winemaking process and precision is the key. A lot of hard work and careful winemaking can all be compromised at the point of bottling. Immediately before bottling most wines are subjected to a thorough laboratory analysis to ensure it is ready. Once in bottle the winemaking process has finished but each wine continues to change and evolve. This process is known as bottle-aging. This is the final frontier for researchers as the processes that occur in bottle are incredibly complex.
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