Soak It All In: Maceration Methods for Winemaking

Winston, here!  I sure am glad that all the hard work of monitoring Mom and Jacob as they picked grapes off our vines is over.  Watching over Wyatt already keeps my paws full, and I barely had any time for napping when I had to oversee all three of them!  Now that the grape harvest is over, it is time for this old boy to take a nap, but it is also time for the winemakers to shine! All of the grapes must be processed quickly in order to extract the highest quality juice to achieve the most delicious wines possible.   

White wines are a relatively easy-drinking bunch that are sometimes viewed as easier to process than red wines. This perspective comes, in part, because most of them aren’t taken through the maceration process. Eliminating that step removes much of the decision making process from the winemaker’s hands.  

It may be hard to believe, but all juices pressed from wine are clear. This is where maceration comes in. What is this maceration, you may ask? Maceration is the term used to refer to the amount of time grape juice sits on the skins after the grapes are crushed. By allowing the skins, seeds, and, often, stems to soak in the juice, the juice is able to extract all of the elements that you have come to expect from a fuller-bodied red wine: rich color, delicious aromas, complex structure, and the ever-important tannins that allow the wine to age. The maceration process can take place in three different ways – the two that are common in our area are cold soaking and extended maceration.  

Cold soaking, as you may imagine, takes place in cooler temperatures (below 55°) that ensure no fermentation takes place during the time the juice is on the must (the collective term used for the skins, seeds, and stems). The huge benefit of using the cold soaking method is that the winemaker has almost total control over the extraction process. Lasting between 12 hours and 5 days, it allows the juice to achieve more color extraction from the skins while lessening the influence of tannins in the wine. This is a great method for grapes that have thinner skins because it deepens the color. After the winemaker determines maceration has finished, the juice is warmed to a temperature conducive for fermentation.

Red grapes going through the maceration process.

Extended maceration takes place over a longer period of time and produces wines that are rich and supple and ready to age. Typically taking between 3 and 100 days, this sort of soaking results in wines that are lighter in color but richer in tannins. The longer soak not only has the added benefit of increasing the tannin count, but it decreases the bitterness of them by enlarging the size of the tannin molecules. Because wines that go through extended maceration are fermenting while soaking, the winemaker has less control over the process. In order to regulate this, winemakers have to manage the cap several times a day.  Cap is the word used to describe all of the bits of skin, seed, and stem that float to the top of the fermentation tank. By either punching this down into the wine or pumping the wine over the cap, the vintner is able to regulate the temperature, to ensure equal contact of wine with the must, to equally distribute the yeast, and to introduce oxygen to the blend. 

Clusters of Cabernet Franc still on the vine.

Carbonic maceration is not nearly as common a method as the other two; in fact, this particular style of maceration results in a particular style of wine: Beaujolais style. In this process, grapes are dropped into a vat in whole cluster form. The vat is pumped full of carbon dioxide in order to deprive the grapes of oxygen. As they starve for air, the grapes begin to release an enzyme that converts the sugars in the grapes into alcohol. This process continues until the alcohol level reaches 2% or until the grape cluster is crushed under the pressure of the clusters above it.  Wines produced in this style, in mere weeks after harvest, are known for their lively flavors and bright noses. They will not age well, due to lack of tannins, but these wines give an excellent declaration of the terroir in which they grow. In France, Beaujolais’ wines are released for sale on the third Thursday of November making them the perfect wine for this time of year!  

After all of this research, I am fairly certain that I am chock full of tannins; after all, have you ever seen such a handsome and distinguished dog as I? There has to be a factor of ageability going on here!

Winston is a regal gentleman! Photo by Greg Murray.