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Home Food Information Kitchen Tips Fermentation in Food and Wine

Fermentation in Food and Wine

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Fermentation in food processing typically is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. A more restricted definition of fermentation is the chemical conversion of sugars into ethanol. The science of fermentation is known as zymurgy.

Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desirable, and the process is used to produce alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and cider. Fermentation is also employed in the leavening of bread, and for preservation techniques to create lactic acid in sour foods such as sauerkraut, dry sausages, kimchi and yogurt, or vinegar (acetic acid) for use in pickling foods.

The primary benefit of fermentation is the conversion of sugars and other carbohydrates, e.g., converting juice into wine, grains into beer, carbohydrates into carbon dioxide to leaven bread, and sugars in vegetables into preservative organic acids.

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The process of fermentation in wine is the catalyst function that turns grape juice into an alcoholic beverage. During fermentation yeast interact with sugars in the juice to create ethanol, commonly known as ethyl alcohol, and carbon dioxide (as a by-product). In winemaking the temperature and speed of fermentation is an important consideration as well as the levels of oxygen present in the must at the start of the fermentation. The risk of stuck fermentation and the development of several wine faults can also occur during this stage, which can last anywhere from 5 to 14 days for primary fermentation and potentially another 5 to 10 days for a secondary fermentation. Fermentation may be done in stainless steel tanks, which is common with many white wines like Riesling, in an open wooden vat, inside a wine barrel and inside the wine bottle itself as in the production of many sparkling wines.

During fermentation there are several factors that winemakers take into consideration. The most notable is that of the internal temperature of the must. The biochemical process of fermentation itself creates a lot of residual heat which can take the must out of the ideal temperature range for the wine. Typically white wine is fermented between 64-68 °F (18-20 °C) though a wine maker may choose to use a higher temperature to bring out some of the complexity of the wine. Red wine is typically fermented at higher temperatures up to 85 °F (29 °C). Fermentation at higher temperatures may have adverse effect on the wine in stunning the yeast to inactivity and even "boiling off" some of the flavors of the wines. Some winemakers may ferment their red wines at cooler temperatures more typical of white wines in order to bring out more fruit flavors.[7]

To control the heat generated during fermentation the winemaker has to choose a suitable vessel size or to use cooling devices of various sorts from the ancient Bordeaux traditions of placing the fermentation vat on top of blocks of ice to today's modern use of sophisticated fermentation tanks with built in cooling rings.[9]

A risk factor involved with fermentation is the development of chemical residue and spoilage which can be corrected with the addition of sulfur dioxide (SO2), although excess SO2 can lead to a wine fault. A winemaker who wishes to make a wine with high levels of residual sugar (like a dessert wine) may stop fermentation early either by dropping the temperature of the must to stun the yeast or by adding a high level of alcohol (like brandy) to the must to kill off the yeast and create a fortified wine.

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