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What Is Wine?

Wine could be called the most common and most complex drink on the planet, but at its core, it is just one thing: an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice.

It’s also history, science, artistry and devotion, all aging in basements and barrels around the world. It’s a drink of unity — crossing barriers of culture and status — that has been a staple part of the human experience since Phoenician times in 300 B.C. A powerful economic and agricultural force, wine has thousands of permutations, and is grown on every continent besides Antarctica.

Over 31 billion bottles of wine are bought and sold worldwide every year, which—when compared to world population—is roughly 4 bottles per person.

What's in a bottle of wine?

If you break down what's in your bottle of wine, it will vary according to type. Generally, the largest component is water — at about 85 percent of the volume. Alcohol is next, around 10 percent, followed by “other” components — like chemical compounds and additives for stabilizing wine — which make up that last 5 percent. That smallest percentage typically has the biggest impact on the wine’s characteristics and flavor. What’s in that 5 percent?

You'll find:

  • Acid
  • Amino acids
  • Esters (created when acid reacts to alcohol)
  • Minerals, polyphenols (which contribute heavily to color, aroma and tannins)
  • Sugar
  • Sulfites (both naturally occurring and added as a preservative)
  • And other compounds

Wine Grapes Versus Table Grapes

Grapes eaten at your summer picnic and ones grown for wine are pretty different. Both wine and table grapes come in red and white varieties and have the same genus, Vitis, but that’s about where the similarities end. There are over 70 species within that genus, and wine grapes are typically one species: Vitis vinifera. Here are the major differences between wine grapes and table grapes:


  • Small and delicate fruit, typically under half an inch wide
  • Thick skin
  • Large seeds
  • Sweet and full of flavor
  • When harvested, they’ll have up to twice the amount of residual sugar as table grapes
  • Grow in a vertical trellis to concentrate on quality and flavor concentration over quantity


  • Large fruit, easier to transport than wine grapes
  • Thin skin
  • Small or no seeds
  • Lightly sweet, mellow flavor
  • Grow in a trellis system to maximize quantity — grape clusters hang down providing more sun exposure and more fruit produced

Continued reading about grape varieties

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"I find it really appealing that we can take someone who is sitting in New York City, drinking a bottle of wine, straight to Eastern Washington — where it's sunny 300 days a year, where it never rains and it's hot during the day and cold at night — using wine as a bridge."
— Juan Muñoz Oca

Quick Facts

  • 80 to 100: number of grapes in each cluster
  • 24: number of grape clusters on a vine
  • 75 to 100: number of grapes in a glass of wine
  • 1 barrel = 300 bottles = ~1,500 glasses

Wine Types

There are six major types of wine:

  1. red
  2. white
  3. rosé
  4. sparkling
  5. dessert
  6. fortified

For more information on types of wine please slide to the right


Red wine is made by fermenting the juice from red grapes, which can include the skins, seeds and sometimes stems. It can range in flavor and color intensity based on the grape variety and the amount of skin contact the wine receives.


White wines are made from white grapes, and are made by pressing out the juice from the grapes, and fermenting only the juice. The fermentation process can take place in stainless steel or oak barrels depending on the varietal and style desired.


Rosé wines follow the same sequence as red wine, but are only left on the skin for a short amount of time, which creates the pink coloration.


Sparkling wine has a reputation for celebration and contains bubbles, which are usually produced during fermentation. "Champagne" is the classic example of sparkling wine, which is exclusively produced in the Champagne region of France. Spain is known for "Cava" and Italy has "Prosecco." None of these names are about grapes, but instead delineate places of origin. The Champagne method involves three additional steps to traditional winemaking. 1) a second fermentation in the bottle when sugar and/or yeast is added, 2) a rack and 'riddling' process of turning bottles as they age and 3) a 'disgorging' where sediment is removed before it's corked.


Dessert wine can be made in a variety of ways but is essentially the retention of sugars in the grape. These include: Late Harvest wines, Ice Wine, and wine affected by Botrytis or “Noble Rot”.


Fortified wines include port, sherry and madeira, and are often higher in alcohol as a result of the addition of either grape or grain spirits.

Continue reading about the winemaking process:

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Winemaker's Insight: Riesling

Riesling may be the world’s most versatile yet misunderstood grape variety and wine. A common misconception is that Riesling wines are sweet. Indeed they can be — and in some cases have an incredible ability to age. It can also be made bone dry and complex.

"You can screw it up really easily," said Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle. "Riesling is so delicate and such a transparent wine, you can tread on it a lot easier (than most red varieties). Riesling should not be about a winemaker's footprint. It's more like running a ballet company than a jazz band."