How is White Wine Made? A Deep Dive with Examples

White wine has long been cherished for its refreshing, delicate, and diverse array of flavors and styles. From crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc to rich, oaky Chardonnay, white wines offer something for every palate.

But how exactly are these delightful wines made? In this friendly and easy-to-understand deep-dive article, we’ll explore the winemaking process behind white wines, highlighting key techniques and providing examples of popular white wine varieties. So, let’s raise a glass and journey together into the fascinating world of white wine production.

The Basics: From Grape to Glass

The process of making white wine begins, of course, with the grapes. Although white wines are predominantly made from green or yellow-skinned grape varieties, they can also be made from red-skinned grapes, provided the grape juice is separated from the skins before fermentation. The key steps in white wine production include harvesting, crushing, pressing, fermentation, aging, and bottling. Let’s take a closer look at each of these stages.

  1. Harvesting: Grapes are carefully harvested by hand or machine, with the timing of the harvest crucial in determining the wine’s acidity, sugar levels, and overall flavor profile.
  2. Crushing: The grapes are crushed, breaking the skins and releasing the juice, or “must.” At this stage, winemakers may choose to allow the juice to macerate with the grape skins for a short period to extract more flavor and aroma compounds.
  3. Pressing: The crushed grapes are pressed to separate the juice from the skins, seeds, and pulp. The gentle handling of the grapes during pressing is crucial to avoid extracting bitter compounds from the grape skins and seeds.
  4. Fermentation: The grape juice is fermented by adding yeast, which converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol. Fermentation temperatures for white wines are typically lower than for red wines (around 54-72°F or 12-22°C), resulting in a slower, more controlled process that helps preserve delicate fruit flavors and aromas.
  5. Aging: After fermentation, the wine may be aged in stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or other vessels, depending on the desired style and flavor profile. The aging period can range from a few months to several years.
  6. Bottling: The wine is clarified, filtered, and bottled, with additional aging in the bottle sometimes employed to enhance the wine’s complexity.

Key Techniques and Varietal Examples

The methods employed during the winemaking process can greatly influence the final profile of a white wine. Here are some key techniques and examples of white wine varieties that exemplify these methods:

  1. Barrel Fermentation and Aging: Some white wines, such as oaked Chardonnay, are fermented and/or aged in oak barrels. This imparts flavors of vanilla, toast, and spice, as well as a rich, creamy texture. Wines aged in new oak barrels will exhibit more intense oak flavors than those aged in older barrels.

Example: A classic example of an oaked Chardonnay is the white Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune region in France, known for its rich, buttery character and elegant balance of fruit and oak.

  1. Stainless Steel Fermentation and Aging: Many white wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks to preserve their fresh, fruity character and crisp acidity. This method highlights the natural flavors of the grape variety and the influence of the terroir.

Example: A prime example of a stainless steel fermented and aged white wine is Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region in New Zealand, renowned for its zesty, citrus-driven flavors and refreshing minerality.

  1. Sur Lie Aging: Some white wines, such as Muscadet and certain Chardonnays, are aged “sur lie,” or on the lees (spent yeast cells) after fermentation. This technique imparts additional complexity, richness, and a creamy texture to the wine. During sur lie aging, the wine may be periodically stirred (a process called “bâtonnage”) to redistribute the lees and enhance the wine’s mouthfeel and flavor.

Example: Muscadet from the Loire Valley in France is a classic example of a wine aged sur lie. Known for its crisp, mineral-driven character, Muscadet showcases subtle lees-derived creaminess and complexity.

  1. Malolactic Fermentation: Some white wines, particularly fuller-bodied Chardonnays, undergo a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation (MLF). This process converts sharp malic acid into softer, creamier lactic acid, resulting in a rounder, more buttery mouthfeel.

Example: California Chardonnay is a popular white wine that often undergoes MLF, contributing to its rich, buttery, and opulent character.

  1. Aromatic Varieties and Cold Soak: Aromatic white wines, such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Viognier, benefit from techniques that enhance their expressive floral and fruity aromas. One such method is cold soaking, in which the crushed grapes are chilled for several hours or days before pressing, allowing for greater extraction of aroma compounds from the grape skins.

Example: A prime example of an aromatic white wine is Riesling from the Mosel region in Germany, known for its alluring floral and fruity notes, along with a distinct mineral character and lively acidity.

The art of white wine production is a fascinating journey, with each step of the process playing a crucial role in shaping the wine’s unique character.

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Written by

Bernard Marr has a deep passion for wine. He has written hundreds of articles on wine, including features for Forbes, covering wine-making and industry trends. Away from the world of wine, Bernard is a world-renown business and technology futurist. He is the award winning author of over 20 best-selling books and has a combined audience of nearly 4 million people across his social media channels and newsletters.

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