Wine: how do you actually make the stuff?

Via a trip behind the scenes to the Deep Woods winery in Margaret River, I walk through how our favourite drink is made. Huge thanks to chief winemaker Julian Langworthy for allowing me to be a pain, asking him questions all morning, and generally following him around.

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The journey from vine to bottle – and our subsequent enjoyment, reflection and in many cases, hangover – is an interesting and long one indeed.

First up, what do we understand about wine? Well, we know that grapes are the magic ingredient; they ultimately get converted to the good stuff by, most importantly, the process of alcoholic fermentation, a chemical reaction that is bought about by the action of yeast. This reaction converts naturally-occuring sugars in the grape into alcohol, carbon dioxide, heat and flavour compounds.

Science part over. Well, nearly: to wind the clock back, the process to produce the various components of a vine comes from a combination of heat and sunlight from the air, and water and nutrients in the soil. Things don’t end well if any of these factors fall down: for example if the temperature around the vine is below 10ºC, it is too cold for the vine to function (…and this is why they’re dormant in the Winter, and the reason wine is only produced between certain parallels of latitude).

Science part definitely over. Now to Deep Woods in sunny Margaret River.

The first job of the day is not with the grapes, but in “the lab”. Every day Julian (below right) and Dan Stocker (left) – “the architect and the builder” respectively, as one of the guys on the winery called them – assess the state of the wines that are currently in the fermentation process. Some are as young as two days old; some are over two weeks.

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We start by tasting two Riesling flights (below). We’re attempting to blend a dry style for a major international supermarket. The first glass is sour as hell with a very short finish [that is, the residual taste sensation after spitting it out]; the second has a lot more about it, good citrus, bracing acidity and a finish that lasted nicely. “I’m thinking at the moment, 85-90% of the second one will make up the blend”, says Julian.

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With the reds, there is a lot of them. The numbers on the side of the bottles refers to the fermentation tank from which the samples have been taken:

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“At this stage all we care about is structure”, Dan says. “Fruit and alcohol haven’t fully formed yet, so acidity and tannin are our main indicators” [tannin: a funky chemical found in the grape’s skins, stalks and pips; we detect it as a drying sensation on the gums. It gives structure to red wine and acts as a preservative, essential for ageing] The lads mechanically move through the wines, as I try to keep up, with no more than one or two lines of commentary for each sample. It’s a quick and efficient process.

A lot of the Cabernet samples take me back to my childhood, when my sister and I would be treated to Ribena: that cloyingly sugar-sweet, blackcurrant juice only drinkable in small quantities. My palate feels flattened by the end of the 21 samples.

We then head out to the yard to see how you actually make this stuff.

The fruit has already been picked, so the main job of the day – and the first one in the winery itself – is crushing and destemming nine tonnes of machine-harvested Malbec, and three tonnes of hand-picked Cabernet. Here’s the Malbec:

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And this is the machine that does it:

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Why crush and destem to start? This is the winemaker’s choice (some wines are made by chucking whole bunches straight into a fermentation tank), but most will carry this stage out because if the grapes have been hand-picked, the bunches will have stems and other leaf material still attached. The crushing, which gently splits the grape’s skin, initially helps the fermentation process.

The appliance, the centre of which is very similar to the drum of a washing machine, breaks the skins and liberates what is known as free run juice, without impacting the pips, which if broken can release bitter and astringent oils – which will almost certainly affect the ferment, and therefore the finished product.

Once they’ve been through the spin cycle, this is them making their way to the next stage:

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Apart from the free run juice produced, here’s what the grapes now look like…note the split skins with still a lot of juice in them:

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At this stage the winemaker may choose to allow the grapes to macerate at cool temperatures, something that allows the greater extraction of colour and flavour. Once the fermentation process is to kicked off though, the grapes (with the juice) are fed through a pipe, from the crusher, and into the fermentation tank:

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And here they are, stewing away at the start of the primary fermentation process. It is here the yeast is added. Approach can vary, as yeast naturally occurs in the air, so the winemaker may choose to leave the tank open and expose the must [unfermented grape juice] to the elements, but nowadays the winemaker will choose a particular strain of yeast in order to have a greater degree of control over the outcome of the fermentation.

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Another important element to modern winemaking is the addition of sulphur dioxide (SO2). In all but the final stages of producing wine, oxygen is a producer’s worst enemy: because just like that bunch of bananas sitting in your fruit bowl at home, leaving out anything organic that has been detached from its host can soon lead to overripness and hence spoiling. It is for this reason that an antiseptic/antioxidant is needed. As soon as the grapes have been picked off the vine, SO2 is used throughout the process.

Depending on the colour and style of wine the winemaker is going for (hence all that constant tasting in the lab), the ferment can last from a few weeks to several months. White wines are usually fermented between 12°C and 22°C, reds 30-32°C. The process of converting that sugar into alcohol maxes out at around 15%abv (i.e. once the sugar has been exhausted).

Skin contact is the key choice for the winemaker: this is where the majority of the flavour and aroma is derived from. In whites, once the crusher has done its thing, often the free run juice is separated off and the remaining grape mass is sent to a press. In reds though, in addition to any cold maceration, a decision needs to be made about how much time the juice of the grapes spends in contact with the skins during fermentation. The longer the time on skins, the fuller the body, the bigger the tannins and the punchier the fruit profile. The result is a “big wine”, often associated with hot climate, high alcohol reds.

Once the ferment is done, the juice is drawn off, and the skins pressed separately (to extract more juice). The SO2 is still never far away. Before clarification, filtering and/or fining – which removes any nasties such as dead yeast cells – one of the final stages of the game is the strange-sounding malolactic fermentation. All red wine goes through this, and some (again, depending on required style) whites do. It is a secondary ferment where tart malic acids (what you get when biting into an apple) are converted into softer lactic acids, which are found in dairy products. This is the process that produces flavours such as butter and nuttiness in your wine.

Then we mature. Barrel-ageing wine, especially red, allows the key elements of wine – fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannin – to integrate and produce what tasters often refer to as balance. For the first time, oxygen is helpful; the oak allows it to gradually seep through and alter – in a good way, hopefully – the flavour of the wine. Here’s the barrel hall at Deep Woods:

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The months (and often years) tick by and the winemaker will taste at regular intervals to see how their embroyonic product is developing. Once they’re happy, and it is of the style they’re aiming for, it’s off to the bottling line:

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And here’s the finished product (Julian kindly gave me this bottle…yet to be drunk):

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So there you have it. The wine will then continue to develop and evolve over time in the bottle, in the hope the drinker picks exactly the right time to unscrew or pop the cork for maximum enjoyment. In the case of high-quality red wine from Bordeaux, this can often take 15-20 years; for commercial, lower price point Pinot Noir, drinking it after just 2-3 years will find it at its peak.

Mother Nature plays the biggest part in the production of wine, but without those important human interventions in the winery – like a controlled alcoholic fermentation, skin contact and that SO2 – your favourite red or white (or rosé, if you’re of that disposition) could not be the drink you know and love. An incredible process which requires a lot of skill and appreciation of the elements. Thank goodness for winemakers and the product they produce.

Which makes me think, what are we going to open this evening..?

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To learn more about Deep Woods, give their website a go.

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