The wines found in Niagara Wine Country are delicious representations of the area’s vinicultural offerings. But, what is it that makes these wines different from the rest? Well, what sets certain wines apart from each other is how they are made. Winemaking is a fine art that requires highly-trained experts and years of experience. Our Wine Smart Guides and wine specialists would be happy to educate you on how certain wines are made during your Niagara-on-the-Lake wine tour.
There is a basic step-by-step process used to make most varieties of wine. What differentiates one wine from the next is the type of grape used, its region of origin, and its fermentation process which varies in time, technique and technology.
Step 1: Picking Grapes
Harvesting season will depend on the kind of grape being harvested and what region the vineyard is located in. The grape harvest season for wineries in Niagara is typically September to October. (Late December/early January for icewines). Most vineyards will begin by picking the white grape varietals first, then the red varietals afterwards. The grapes are collected and transferred into bins (or lugs) and transported to a crushing pad.
The grapes are cut from the vines either by a machine, such as a mechanical harvester, or human hands and shears. Some smaller wineries find that hand picking the grapes results in better quality wine, although it requires much more manual labour. In warmer regions, wineries will harvest the grapes at night when it’s cooler, to maximize efficiency. The grapes will still have their stems and leaves at this point in time, as they will be removed later.
Step 2: Crushing the Grapes
No matter the wine, all grapes need to be crushed similarly. A destemmer is commonly used to remove the stems from the grapes as they are lightly crushed. There’s a slight difference in how grapes for white wine are crushed compared to red wines.
After the grapes for white wine are crushed, they are transferred into a press. Here, the grapes are pressed into a juice, while the skins and seeds are left behind. The juice is transferred into a large tank for a settling period. During this time, any sediment slowly settles to the bottom and is later removed during a filtration process known as “racking,” where it’s transferred into another tank.
The grapes are destemmed and lightly crushed in a similar process to grapes for white wine. The main difference is that both the grapes and the skins are transferred into a vat, where they begin fermentation right away.
Fun fact – All grape juices are the same colour! Leaving the red skins on the grapes during fermentation is what gives red wine its colour.
Step 3: Fermentation
Fermentation is the process of turning sugar into alcohol. There’s a wide variety of techniques that winemakers can use during the fermentation process, depending on the type of wine they’re making. Different kinds of grapes require specific techniques and technologies for ideal fermentation. Yeast can be added into the vat for the fermentation of both white and red wines.
Red wine requires carbon dioxide to be released within the vats to separate the skins from the grapes. Winemakers “punch down” or “pump over” the cap several times a day to ensure the skins stay in contact with the wine throughout the fermentation process. After the fermentation is complete, the grapes are pressed and then racked to filter the wine for clarity.
Step 4: Aging
There are a variety of aging methods that winemakers can use depending on the kind of wine they’re making. Flavours are enhanced by the amount of time the wine is aged, which can range from months to years. Winemakers will also vary their aging process by containing the wine in stainless steel or oak barrels. Oak barrels can vary in styles, from new oak, to used/neutral oak, and American Oak, to French Oak. Some winemakers even use a “toasted” barrel, which means it was charred by fire to enhance the flavour of the wine.
Step 5: Bottle and Enjoy!
Once the winemaker feels that the wine has reached its intended potential, it’s time to bottle for consumption. Some white wines can be bottled after only a few months, whereas most reds need roughly 18-24 months of aging before they reach their full potential. Depending on the winery, special machines can be used for the bottling process.
Now, it’s time for you to experience the wine for yourself. You can contact the experts at Niagara Vintage Wine Tours to learn more about local Niagara wineries or book a tour! You can explore the history of Niagara wineries, learn how the wine was made, and experience the best wines in the Niagara Region with the #1 rated Niagara wine tour company, as reviewed on TripAdvisor.