Winemaking 101 – Episode 8 – What Is Wine?

I participate on Wine Making Talk, a wine maker’s forum. My time is mixed between general discussions and helping others — especially newbies — with the wine making process, problems, and general advice. For the most part it’s a good group, friendlier than any other forum I’ve participated on. Sure, there are a few who “need improvement” on “works and plays well with others”, but this is the internet and there are many folk like that here.

There is some disagreement on “what is wine”.

I’ve met folk who firmly believe that wine is made only from Vitis Vinifera (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc.), the species of grapes native to the Mediterranean region, Central Europe, and southwestern Asia. Wine made from other species such as Vitis Labrusca (e.g., Concord) and Vitis Rotundifolia (e.g., Muscadine) are not wine in their opinion.

Others are less rigid in that respect — they believe wine is made from any (or most) grapes, but firmly believe that anything made from a different fruit is not wine.

In my experience, the majority of wine makers are in the “inclusive” camp — the definition of “wine” covers the alcoholic beverage fermented using pretty much any fruit, and some organic materials that are not fruit. In general wine making discussion, I use two terms:

  • grape wine
  • fruit wine

Grape Wine

Grape wine is made from grapes (duh!). Historically speaking, grapes are part of the definition of wine.

Why are grapes the “definition” of wine? It’s a combination of factors, one of which that grapes grow in most areas where people live, all around the world. The obvious exceptions are where the climate is too cold or too hot.

Another factor is that grapes are a complete package — grapes contain everything necessary to make wine — flavoring, sugar, acid (necessary for taste), and yeast. Yeast grows on the skins of grapes, so when grapes are crushed to release juice, the pulp starts fermenting. Yeast starts eats the sugar and emits alcohol and CO2.

Unless the juice is boiled to kill the yeast, grapes ferment into wine. And even after it’s boiled, the juice needs to be either consumed somewhat quickly or protected from the air, as airborne yeast and bacteria will start growing in what is an ideal home for them.

Please note that while grapes are a complete wine making package, the fruit is not always ideal for wine making. Thus it is common to adjust the crushed grapes (called must) to produce a better result.

Grapes grown specifically for wine make make the best wine. Table grapes, such as Thompson seedless grapes, can be made into wine but the product is less pleasing.

Fruit Wine

“Fruit” wine is wine made from anything other than grapes. This includes typical fruit such as apples, mango, raspberries, strawberries, and tomatoes. [Remember, tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable.]

But “fruit wine” is a catch-all, as this grouping includes vegetable wines including beetroot, garlic, potato, and rhubarb. Yes, garlic. When researching this topic I found this recipe for garlic wine. Note that not all wines are for direct consumption — garlic wine is used primarily for cooking.

I include mead (honey wine) in this grouping, as the process is very much the same as for fruit wines.

While we could break fruit wines up into sub-categories, the process for most is roughly the same and in my opinion, it’s not worth the effort to single out the exceptions.


Sake (rice wine) is a completely different process, a rather detailed and lengthy one. Anyone interested can read here for more information. Sake is a group of its own, although it’s not mentioned except in sake making discussions. I have thought about making it … but it’s so labor intensive that I have yet to develop the gumption, and I do not personally know anyone who has.

What is the Difference?

The big difference between grape and fruit is told in the definition of grape wine — grapes are a complete wine making package. Fruit wines require additives and adjustments.

Typical additives include sugar and acid. Read a bunch of fruit wine recipes and a common factor is adding sugar and/or raisins, and lemon juice for acid. Even very sweet fruits often lack the necessary sugar to produce enough alcohol to enable the wine to preserve for any length of time.

Wines with less than 10% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) typically have a shorter shelf life, although for most of the world’s wine production, this is not a compelling factor, as 90% of the wine production is designed for consumption within 3 years. Wines that age more than a decade are the exception, not the rule.

In contrast, mead has far more sugar than is optimal for wine making — yes, there can be too much sugar. It’s necessary to dilute the honey to reduce the sugar level enough so the yeast can consume it. Additionally, while honey is a perfect food for humans and bees, it lacks nutrients necessary for yeast to grow well, and has no acid, so the taste of mead can be insipid.

In centuries past, melomel (mead with fruit) was common as it solved most of the mead making problems.

The last difference is yeast. As mentioned previously, yeast grows on the skin of the grape. Non-grape wines either need to be inoculated with yeast, or the maker must rely on whatever yeast is in the air.

What About Beer?

Beer is not wine — because of the process. Beer is made from grains, which have little or no natural sugar. A process which includes boiling and steeping (called “mashing”) is required to convert the starch in the fermentable sugar. The strained liquid that is produced is called wort (pronounced “wert”) and is what is fermented.

Historically beer is flavored with hops, the leaf of a vine that introduces flavor and bitterness, although other flavorings can be used. Also note that hops can be used to flavor wine, although the result has a much different flavor profile than is typical for grape or fruit wines.

What Can I Make Wine From?

The shorter answer is for the question, “What can’t I made wine from?“.

I suspect the answer is “grain”, which has no sugar and requires processing before being made into beer. Wine can be made from everything else I can think of, including things that make me wonder how desperate someone was to make alcohol.

Following, in no particular order, are interesting things wine is made from:

  • milk
  • whey leftover from cheese making
  • lemon juice (called “Skeeter Pee”)
  • garlic (mentioned above)
  • Welch’s frozen grape juice
  • dandelion, where the non-green petals are used
  • rose petals
  • rose hips (which is actually a fruit)
  • herbs (basil, oregano, etc.)
  • sundew (yes, the carnivorous plant)

Pretty much anything can be made into wine …