What Does ‘Extraction’ Mean in Wine?

An illustration of the word 'extraction'
Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

If you’ve ever heard a winemaker wax poetic about “extraction” and been lost amid stanzas on fermentation and polymerization, you’re not alone. Extraction is a hard topic to master for wine drinkers and winemakers alike.

We asked industry professionals to shed some light on this oft-confusing term.

What is extraction in wine?

“Extraction is the way to take things like flavor and color and other components out of the grapes and put it in a liquid solution,” says Felipe Ramirez, winemaker at Rose & Arrow Estate and Alit Wines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The process also pulls important components like tannins, acids and aromatics from the skin, pulp, seeds and (if used) stems of ripe grapes. All of these elements are deposited into the juice to make their way into wine.

“Extraction is about building the core structure of the wine,” says James Hall, founder and winemaker at Patz & Hall in Sonoma. “It’s really at the heart of red winemaking because extraction, to my mind, is about removing the elements from the grape and putting them into solution in the wine in some proportion that is correct for the varietal and the style of wine.”

According to Cristóbal Undurraga, technical director and CEO of Koyle Family Vineyards in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, extraction also ensures that the wine has good balance.

“If you taste wines and they’re overextracted, the wine will immediately have rustic tannins,” he says. “For me, those wines will be not easy to drink or not comfortable to drink.”

On the other hand, if the wine was underextracted during production, it may be too thin or lack weight.

How does extraction happen?

Fermentation temperature, the actions of yeasts and other microbes and cap management are the main tools that winemakers use to control extraction.

A “cap” refers to the solids pushed to the top of a container during fermentation, which leaves the liquid at the bottom, according to Ramirez. “You need to put the solids in contact with the liquid if you want to extract more things.”

This can be done by pushing the solids into the liquid, called a punch down, or pumping the liquid over the solids, known as a pump over.

Barrels are another important consideration. “New oak will add tannins from the oak to the wine,” says Undurraga, as well as flavor and texture. The toast of the barrel, grain of the wood and region where the trees were grown affect these components, so they must be carefully considered by winemakers.

Is extraction in wine a good thing or a bad thing?

“Extraction is in the mouth of the beholder,” says Hall.

The decision about whether a wine has too much or too little extraction has much to do with personal taste. For many years, highly extracted wines were coveted by critics and many wine lovers who liked their bold, burly styles.

But too much extraction can be problematic. Ramirez draws an analogy to tea. If the water is too hot for the type being made, or if you stir or squeeze the bag too much, “you will overextract. And then you will have a cup of tea that tastes very tannic and bitter, and overpowers the aromas,” he says.

In some ways, wine is not that different.

“With high fermentation temperatures and highly mechanical processes, you will overextract, and you will have a wine that tastes bitter or has a lot of tannins or herbal notes,” says Ramirez. “You will extract things you don’t want to extract.”

But, “I would suggest when you have wines that are very, very extracted, they tend to be more alike,” says Hall. “It’s sort of like putting on layers of paint. Eventually, you get to black. To get terroir, you need to have a middle ground where there’s room for terroir to show through.”

As more enthusiasts appreciate terroir, the pendulum is swinging back to wines with less extraction.

Underextraction can also be an issue. “If you underextract, the wine may be too light and ethereal, and won’t age as well,” says Hall.

Undurraga believes underextraction is easier to mitigate. “Carmenère will always have that little bit of lightness or thinness on the midpalate, but you can fix it when it’s blended with another variety, such as Petit Verdot,” he says. “If you overextract, it’s difficult to help that wine to be balanced.”

What Does 'Dry Red Wine' Mean?

Does extraction apply to white or red wine?

Extraction is a factor in both red and white wines. But it’s something winemakers have to consider more carefully with reds.

White wines are made by gently pressing grapes to remove the liquid and then fermenting it.

“When you extract the juice, it’s what you have,” says Ramirez. “You need to be very, very careful on the pressing because that’s the moment where you define the extraction of all the components that will be in your juice and in your wine.

“For reds, it’s totally different because you work with everything, all the solids and all the juice. Because red wine will continue their extractive processes throughout fermentation, there are more opportunities for wanted or unwanted compounds to find their way into the liquid.”

Published on March 23, 2021
Topics: Wine Basics