The goal of most winemakers is to produce wines of distinction. As a result, the pressing questions to be answered are: what goes into making great wine? What distinguishes the wines that earn top scores and higher prices from other wines?
In order to provide a convincing reply to how an exceptional wine may be produced, one has to take the process of premium winemaking apart and examine its components. It is apparent and it will become evident that there is no system or single recipe for success, and the practical aspects of making award-winning wines are difficult to describe. What we are attempting here is to point out what we consider most important. Greatness in wine is much like a work of art or music. Similar to any sensory evaluation, it is naturally subjective. It depends upon personal experience and, therefore, there is no single answer or solution.
Briefly, the way grapes are grown (viticulture) and how they are subsequently made into wine (vinification) are the two main factors that determine quality in wine. The central element to both is that of paying attention to every detail of the entire process, from grape growing to winemaking and even after the wine is finally in the bottle.
To start with, the first item in the production of quality grapes is a good site for the vines. A prime vineyard site encompasses the soil, row orientation, amount of humidity, wind, night and day temperatures, grape variety, clone, rootstocks, cultivation practices, pest control, irrigation practices etc. It takes a lot of experience to locate the best sites for a grapevine and realize the potential of that site in order to select the proper varieties planted in the correct climate. There is a common belief that great wines are always made from vineyards that have a prominent exposure to the sun; usually hilly sites are the norm.
Soil type and drainage are fundamental. Mountainous, well-drained terrains are the favourites. Balanced fruit from the vineyard requires an amount of water “stress” in order to develop the most expression and intensity of its varietal character. It is almost a cliché to say that great wine is made in the vineyard, and surely it is a key element. If you do not get it right in the vineyard, it is impossible to recover the lost potentials at the winery. Grapes must be allowed to express the vineyard’s terroir.
Good weather during the vintage without rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including full ripening, are essential considerations for determining the critical decision of when to harvest. Picking time is obviously of prime importance since harvest time is irreversible and must be decided based on physiological observations, such as softening of the clusters, lignification of the stems, darkening and pliability of the seeds and sugar levels in the grape. Most wine producers agree that the grapes must be allowed to speak for the vineyard. Letting nature provide all necessary ingredients of the wine is preferable than trying to manipulate it and use chemical substances to balance it into shape.
Making great wine in small quantities is easier than in large amounts, since you can be so close to the process. It takes several years of winemaking experimentation to learn how best to make wine from a specific varietal and location. It is vital to know the characters of the vineyard e.g. if you have tannic grapes, don’t over-extract. If your grape source is from deep, fertile, moisture-rich soils, work them a bit for some tannin extraction to balance out the over-abundance of fruity character you are likely to get with this variety of grape.
During the last few decades, it has become fashionable to pick the grapes at 25º to 26º Brix. Getting the most expression, intensity of character and balanced fruit from the vineyards are keys. Harvesting only the ripest grapes and then delivering them quickly to the winery to limit oxidisation also helps. Worldwide, the best winegrowing regions tend to have a Mediterranean climate and the growers in each region want the same thing: enough sun and heat to bring the grapes to complete ripeness, but not so much that the flavours don’t have time to mature or the grapes lose too much acidity along the way. Consequently, each region has its challenges. Warm climate wines are generally relatively low in acid and high in alcohol. The sugars accumulate very easily during the long, warm growing season.
Typically, the Chardonnay grape is particularly expressive of the place it’s grown. Planted all over the world, this grape variety, when grown in hot climates, ripens quite early. It produces wines that have a relatively high alcohol content and medium to low acidity, showing tropical aromas with a smooth texture. When grown in cooler climates, Chardonnay tends to produce wines that are crisper with a higher acidity. In both cases, the wine is frequently aged in oak barrels.
When it comes to actual vinification, assuming you start with great grapes picked at the right time, the winemaker’s job is to make the best use of the grapes at hand. Although most winemakers who make great wine have access to the most advanced technology, they don’t necessarily use it very much.
The grapes must be made into wine soon after they have been picked because contact with air causes oxidisation, which spoils their flavour. Understanding the effects of air, as well as temperature control during fermentation, have been breakthroughs in modern winemaking techniques. This knowledge has raised the overall quality of wine today.
After sorting and crushing follows cold-soak for immediate colour and fruit extraction. Once fermentation begins, a pump-over scheme is used for red wine processing. When fermentation begins to slow down, pumping-over is minimized so as not to overwork the seeds and get unwanted tannins. At the end of fermentation, the must is left for maceration without pumping-over for polymerization of tannins and colour stabilization.
Pressing is also critical and should be gentle. New computer control bladder pressers are nowadays commonly used which permit control pressures appropriate for the winemakers’ wishes. At this stage, the wine can be inoculated for malolactic fermentation or tannins, enzymes and nutrients can be added.
Barrels are clearly an important part of fine winemaking. Many wines can benefit from coming into contact with oak. Oak can enhance the colour of the wine, soften and round out flavours, and impart its own unique characteristics. Almost all great red wines and many white wines spend time in oak barrels before being bottled, and that’s just because winemakers have found they taste better that way. In the oaked wine the aroma of the fruit will still be present, but the wine won’t be as bright and crisp; instead it will be in balance with other flavours, such as vanilla and spices. It will also have a fuller mouth feel.
Red wine is usually aged in a barrel for one to two years, sometimes longer, before bottling. During ageing, it is important to control the amount of oxygen that enters through the oak, which is permeable. The level of oxidation depends on the size of the barrel, the length of time the wine remains in the barrel and whether it is full or not. Oak ageing is a key to making high quality red wines.
Last, but not least, is wine packaging and preservation management. The choice of wine packaging and preserving will depend on the desired quality of wine and the winemaker’s personal preferences. However, the most important thing for successful wine preservation is regular monitoring of storage and ageing the wine.
Creating a great wine is an art and a science. It is a long, slow process, and the emphasis is on getting the best from the vines, using the sense of taste to decide when to pick and make other decisions throughout the process of winemaking, and generally manipulating as little as possible.
Behind every bottle of wine there is a lot of hard work in the vineyard and the cellar. Besides that, successful wine production requires a lot of knowledge, a pinch of creativity, and finally organization and accuracy. Each producer must develop his/her own palate and style true to vineyard source. Clearly a great sense of taste and smell is vital.
There are wine quality classification systems within the EU that give some guidance; a Country Wine (Vin de Pays) ought to be better quality than a Table Wine (Vin de Table) because of the wine production laws in place. So as a general rule of thumb, the higher up the quality scale, the better the wine should be. As with any industry, there are those who take pride in their product and produce outstanding wine within the quality category, and those who do just enough to remain within its boundaries, hence there will always be variation.
It’s easy to figure out that one very important aspect of determining the selling price of wine is production quantity. Wine is like any other commodity; production costs, rarity and prestige are factors which dictate the final price. Making a great wine is very closely related to cost. The numerous operations required in the vineyard to make great wine are extremely expensive. Winemakers can choose to produce their wines cheaply or expensively. They might use low-yields rather than bigger volume high-yields to ensure the use of fuller flavoured grapes. They might harvest by hand (high labour costs) rather than by machine to be more selective. They could make their wine in concrete vats or (very expensive) new oak barrels. All these additional costs will be recovered in the selling price. This is why a wine from a quality producer will always be more expensive than a bulk-production wine.
Price is only an indication of quality when similar wines are being compared. Price also reflects age, rarity and whether it comes from a particularly famous producer. Growers with excellent reputations are able to command higher prices for their wines. This is not to say that an unknown, small producer is not making wines of similar quality at a fraction of the price. However, a bad, but greedy, producer may charge more than his wine is truly worth.
Furthermore, many quality wines are made to mature over a long period of time before finally reaching their best. There are also astonishingly good wines made in tiny quantities each year. From the outset, these wines are rare and, of course, costly. However price cannot compete with sound wine knowledge; the more you know about wine and wine producers, the better you will be at selecting good wine. Quality is assessed best by tasting. Quite often you won’t be able to taste a wine before buying, but information is available on wine labels to help you decide. Of course, any good wine store can offer you advice.
It is true that wine is an acquired taste and everyone’s taste is different. To top this, wine gives off hundreds of aroma compounds that deliver hundreds of unique smells, from cherry sauce to old saddle leather. We all have a unique and particular taste, and that’s what makes life interesting. This is why nobody can offer advice which is purely objective…
Great wines have the ability to create a sensory stimulation, an emotional response, a pleasant surprise that excites your senses, and even give you the kind of feeling that simply leaves you speechless for a few seconds. You will notice that these truly exceptional wines are more than just “intellectually” pleasing – they have something that evokes positive emotions and make this whole experience worthwhile, be it only a single sip!