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Red Wine Making

The process of making red wine is similar to white wine, with a few very important differences.  The desire to capture components of the skins of red grapes, (color, aromas, and tannins), in the vinification process requires changes from white wine making.  This article highlights these changes and builds on the basics covered in the article on white wine making.

Below is a diagram that shows the major steps in making red wine.


Unlike white wine production, where the grapes are pressed early in the process, and skins, seeds, and stems are removed, the production of red wine requires that grapes be crushed, and that the skins and the juice travel the vinification road together.  The mixture of skins and juice, known as the must, is what is fermented and used to produce red wine.  Red wine derives most of its color, aromas and tannins from the solids of the grape, and managing the must is critical to the production of red wine.

Must Adjustment

In addition to adding acid (acidification) or sugar (chaptalization) which may be practiced with white wines, red wine will be evaluated for sufficient levels of tannins.  Tannins are required to achieve balance in the final product and to preserve color intensity in lighter red varieties such as Pinot Noir.  Tannin adjustment can be accomplished through extended contact with the grape stems (source of tannin) or through the addition of enological (wine making) tannin powder, a specially formulated natural source of tannins.


Maceration is the time period during which the skins and the juice of the grape are allowed to interact. During this time, phenolic materials (tannins, flavors, and coloring agents) are leached from the grape skins, seeds, and stems into the must, giving red wine its color, aromas and tannin structure.  Once the grapes are crushed, maceration begins; however, fermentation may be delayed to allow the extraction process to be longer.  Delaying fermentation requires that the must be cooled, using what is called a cold soak or cold maceration.  Maceration and cold soaking are also done with a limited set of white wines (and usually for very short time periods) but are most common with red wines.  The temperature of the must is lowered (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit) to prohibit spontaneous fermentation from yeasts present on the skins or in the winery.

Maceration may also extend for weeks after the primary fermentation is over (extended maceration), with the same objective, to maximize the transfer of phenolic materials to the wine. 

The length of maceration is one of the most influential controls exhibited by the winemaker.  Decisions are based on the grape variety and resultant style of the final product desired by the winemaker.  Lighter grape varieties such as Pinot Noir may undergo a cold soak and extended maceration in an effort to extract colors from these light skinned red grapes.  Cabernet Sauvignon's on the other hand have more intense colors, and extended maceration may be employed to increase tannin and aroma transfer, resulting in a more powerful wine.


The fermentation process for red wine is similar to that of white with a few significant differences dictated by the same issue – continued contact between the skins and juice.  Fermentation may take place in large stainless steel tanks, large oak vats, or smaller oak barrels depending on the style the winemakers is striving to achieve.  Regardless of the fermenting vessel however, the presence of large quantities of grape skins, stems, and pips (seeds) in the must, interacting with effervescing carbon dioxide from the fermentation, produces a solid mass known as the cap that floats to the top. In order to maintain contact between these solids and the juice, the cap must be regularly mixed.  Cap management as it's known, can be done manually using a process called “punching down”.  The cap is simply pushed down into the fermenting vessel manually several times a day using a device that looks much like a potato masher.  Larger commercial vineyards may use rotary tank (think cement mixer), or pump over methods (pumping liquid from the bottom of the vessel over the cap), to accomplish the mixing.

Fermentation of red wine takes place at higher temperatures than white wine, usually 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15 – 21 Celsius) for lighter varieties, and 80 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit (27 – 32 Celsius) for bolder reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel.

Fermentation lasts for several days to as long as two to three weeks.  Fermentation ends when either all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the alcohol levels get so high as it kills the yeast, or the winemaker stops the fermentation to preserve a small amount of residual sugar in the wine.

Malolactic Fermentation

Even more common than in white wine, a secondary “fermentation” known as malolactic fermentation may be started.  Technically not a fermentation at all but rather a bacterial transformation, malolactic fermentation converts malic acid to lactic acid giving red wine a smoother, less acidic flavor.


Unlike white wine where grapes are pressed before fermentation, pressing with red wine vinification is only done after fermentation and extended maceration is finished.  The wine will be racked - a process to allow relatively clear, “free run” wine to be poured off leaving solids rich wine to be pressed.  Press wine, as the resultant wine is called, is usually kept separate and may be blended in controlled amounts with the free run juice to produce the style of wine the winemaker is striving for.

Similar to white wine, red wine may undergo the process of clarification, involving fining or filtering to remove suspended material from the wine. 


Most white wine spends little time aging and is ready to drink early; red on the other hand almost uniformly benefits from oak aging.  The contact with oak barrels allows for controlled oxidation – a process that allows very small quantities of oxygen to reach the wine over an extended period.  This slow exchange facilitates the process of polymerization, the transformation of short chain tannins to long chain tannins – which to the average wine consumer simply means the tannins are not as puckering or astringent, described as softer.  Contact with oak also imparts flavors of vanilla, oak and toast. 


The major difference between red and white wine vinification arises from the need for red grape skins to remain in contact with juice before, during and after fermentation.  This fundamental difference changes some of the individual components of wine making as summarized below.

Wine Making Process


White Wine

Red Wine


Most white wine bypass crushing and are immediately pressed.



Before fermentation

Not performed until primary fermentation is complete



Skin contact is avoided with few exceptions




Lower temperatures

Higher temperatures with regular mixing of the cap with the juice


Malolactic Fermentation

Uncommon except for Chardonnay

Uniformly done for all but the lightest bodied reds



Common in all but “unfiltered” Chardonnays and the occasional Pinot Gris.

Racking may be done but fining and filtering is less common than in white wine


Oak Aging

Uncommon except for full bodied Chardonnays or occasional Chenin Blanc from South Africa

Required for all but the lightest bodied reds


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