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About this Article
Written by: Kara Scheu
Written on: March 8th, 2008
Tags: chemical engineering, food & drink
Thumbnail by: Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo/Stock.xchng
About the Author
In Spring 2008, Kara Scheu was a junior majoring in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southern California. She studied abroad in Italy and fell in love with the culture, which compelled her to take a closer look at the process behind making that perfect bottle of wine.
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Volume X Issue I > From the Vine to the Table: Winemaking Explained
Wine has been enjoyed for over 7,000 years and through the centuries it has been the preferred drink of the Egyptians, Romans and Mesopotamians. It has played a key role in religion and cross-cultural trade, but only in the past 150 years has science and technology become a part of the winemaking process. Louis Pasteur's discovery of germ theory led to the modern process of winemaking: growing and harvesting, crushing and pressing, fermentation, clarification, and aging and bottling. Winemakers are both engineers and artists, using scientific principles while adding their own unique twist to the process in order to create what they hope will be that perfect bottle of wine.

Introduction

Wong Mei Teng/Stock.xchng
Figu​re 1: Wine bottles.
Wine has been the preferred drink of many civilizations through the centuries (Fig. 1). During Roman times it was a symbol of wealth and power, and during the Middle Ages it was the only beverage safe enough to drink. It has been central to widely practiced religions like Christianity and Judaism, it fueled ancient economies, and it spurred cross-cultural interactions and trade. Wine has also been a central element of major civilizations such as the Egyptians, Romans, and Mesopotamians. Although the making of wine in its early stages was far from being an exact science, developments in science and engineering since then have come to play a key role in the way we produce this highly regarded beverage.

Origins

Wine may have been around for much longer than any of us would have guessed -- winemaking is now believed to go back as far as 5000 BC, after archaeologists discovered a broken jar with a yellowish residue inside. The jar was excavated from Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern part of Iran near what is believed to have been a major trade route. It was at that time, during the Neolithic period, that winemaking turned into an intentional human activity as opposed to a natural happenstance [1].

Evolution of Wine Industry

Winemaking, in its simplest form, is an entirely natural process that requires no human intervention. For this reason, no significant changes in viticulture (the study of grapes) or enology (the study of wine and winemaking) occurred until around 1860 AD. The quality of wine in its natural form, however, was generally very poor. Louis Pasteur dramatically changed methods of wine production with his discovery of germs and germ theory in 1861. His contribution illustrated that the problems of the wine industry could be solved by applying the scientific method. He also applied germ theory to fermentation and was able to distinguish differences in various types of yeast. Research in viticulture and enology soon became a worldwide effort and science has since played a crucial role in the production of wine [2].

Overview of the Process

There are five basic steps that go into the production of wine: growing and harvesting, crushing and pressing, fermentation, clarification, and aging and bottling. Although these steps are generally followed, every winemaker has his/her own twist on the process and the number of variations is essentially limitless. In this way, winemakers are both engineers and artists, utilizing science, trial and error, and personal preference to produce a unique bottle of wine.