Learn About Wine
What is Wine?
Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation of unmodified grape juice. The natural chemical balance of grapes is such that they ferment completely without the addition of sugars, acids, enzymes or other nutrients. Although other fruits like apples and berries can also be fermented, the resultant “wines” are normally named after the fruit (for example, apple wine or elderberry wine) and are generically known as fruit or country wine. Others, such as barley wine and rice wine (e.g. sake) are made from starch-based materials and resemble beer more than wine, while ginger wine is fortified with brandy. In these cases, the use of the term “wine” is a reference to the higher alcohol content, rather than production process. The commercial use of the English word “wine” (and its equivalent in other languages) is protected by law in many jurisdictions.
The History of Wine
The earliest evidence suggesting wine production comes from archaeological sites in Georgia and Iran, dating from 6000 to 5000 BC. The archaeological evidence becomes clearer, and points to domestication of grapevine, in Early Bronze Age sites of the Near East, Sumer and Egypt from around the third millennium BC. In Egypt, wine became a part of recorded history, playing an important role in ancient ceremonial life. Traces of wine were also found in China, dating from the second and first millennium BC
Wine was common in classical Greece and Rome. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine and revelry, and wine was frequently referred to in the works of Homer and Aesop. Many of the major wine producing regions of Western Europe today were established by the Romans. Wine making technology improved considerably during the time of the Roman Empire. Many grape varieties and cultivation techniques were known. Barrels were developed for storing and shipping wine.
In medieval Europe, the Christian Church was a staunch supporter of wine which was necessary for the celebration of the Catholic Mass. In places such as Germany, beer was banned and considered pagan and barbaric while wine consumption was viewed as civilized and a sign of conversion.
Wine grapes grow almost exclusively between thirty and fifty degrees north or south of the equator. The world’s most southerly vineyards are in the Central Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island near the 45th parallel, and the most northerly is in Flen, Sweden, just above the 59th parallel.
Wine Exporting Countries
The 14 largest export nations (as of 2005) – France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile, the United States of America, Germany, South Africa, Portugal, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Croatia and Argentina. California produces about 90% of the wine in the United States. In 2000, Great Britain imported more wine from Australia than from France for the first time in history.
Wine is usually made from one or more varieties of the European species, Vitis vinifera. When one of these varieties, such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or Merlot, for example, is used as the predominant grape (usually defined by law as a minimum of 75 or 85%) the result is a varietal, as opposed to a blended wine. Blended wines are in no way inferior to varietal wines; some of the world’s most valued and expensive wines from the Bordeaux, Rioja or Tuscany regions, are a blend of several grape varieties of the same vintage.
Wine can also be made from other species or from hybrids, created by the genetic crossing of two species. Vitis labrusca, Vitis aestivalis, Vitis rupestris, Vitis rotundifolia and Vitis riparia are native North American grapes, usually grown for eating in fruit form or made into grape juice, jam, or jelly, but sometimes made into wine, eg. Concord wine (Vitis labrusca species).
Hybrids are not to be confused with the practice of grafting. Most of the world’s vineyards are planted with European vinifera vines that have been grafted onto North American species rootstock. This is common practice because North American grape species are resistant to phylloxera. Grafting is done in every wine-producing country of the World except for Chile and Argentina, which have yet to be exposed to the insect.
The variety of grape(s), aspect (direction of slope), elevation, and topography of the vineyard, type and chemistry of soil, the climate and seasonal conditions under which grapes are grown, the local yeast cultures altogether form the concept of “terroir.” The range of possibilities lead to great variety among wine products, which is extended by the fermentation, finishing, and aging processes. Many small producers use growing and production methods that preserve or accentuate the aroma and taste influences of their unique terroir.
However, flavor differences are not desirable for producers of mass-market table wine or other cheaper wines, where consistency is more important. Producers will try to minimize differences in sources of grapes by using wine making technology such as micro-oxygenation, tannin filtration, cross-flow filtration, thin film evaporation, and spinning cone.
Classification of Wines
Wine experts generally classify wine into categories, with the distinctions among the classes based primarily on major differences in their manner of vinification.
* Table wines may have an alcohol content that is no higher than 14% in the U.S.. In Europe, light wine must be within 8.5% and 14% alcohol by volume. As such, unless a wine has more than 14% alcohol, or it has bubbles, it is a table wine or a light wine. Table wines are usually classifed as White, Red or Rosé, depending on their color. In Europe ‘vins de table’ (in French), ‘vino da tavola’ (in Italian) or ‘vino de mesa’ (in Spanish), which translate to ‘table wine’ in English, are cheaper wines that often on the label do not include the information on the grape variety used or the region of origin.
* Sparkling wines such as champagne, are those with carbon dioxide, either from fermentation or added later. To have this effect, the wine is fermented twice, once in an open container to allow the carbon dioxide to escape into the air, and a second time in a sealed container, where the gas is caught and remains in the wine. Sparkling wines that gain their carbonation from the traditional method of bottle fermentation are called ‘Bottle Fermented’, ‘Méthode Traditionelle’, or ‘Méthode Champenoise’. The latter designation is considered wrong by those who hold that Champagne refers to the origin as well as the method of production. Other international denominations of sparkling wine include Sekt or Schaumwein (Germany), Cava (Spain), Spumante [[Italy). ‘Semi Sparkling wines’ are Sparkling Wines that contain less than 2.5 atmospheres of carbon dioxide at sea level and 20 degrees C. Some countries such as the UK impose a higher tax on fully sparkling wines. Examples of Semi-Sparkling wines are Frizzante Italy, Vino de Aguja Spain, Petillant France.
* Dessert wines range from slightly sweet (with less than 50 g/L of sugar) to incredibly sweet wines (with over 400 g/L of sugar). Late Harvest Wines such as Spätlese are made from grapes harvested well after they have reached maximum ripeness. Dried grape wines, such as Recioto and Vin Santo fron Italy, are made from grapes that have been partially raisined after harvesting. Botrytized wines are made from grapes infected by the mold Botrytis cinerea or noble rot. These include Sauternes from Bordeaux, Numerous wines from Loire such as Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, Tokaji Aszú from Hungary, and Beerenauslese from Germany and Austria. Eiswein is made from grapes that are harvested while they are frozen.
* Fortified wines are often sweeter, and generally more alcoholic wines that have had their fermentation process stopped by the addition of a spirit, such as brandy, or have had additional spirit added after fermentation. Examples include Port, Madeira and Banyuls.
* Cooking wines typically contain a significant quantity of salt. It is a wine of such poor quality, that it is unpalatable by itself and intended for use only in cooking. (Note, however, that most cooking authorities advise against cooking with any wine one would find unacceptable to drink. A recent study, however, has found that inexpensive wine works as well as expensive wine in cooking.)
The color of wine is not determined by the juice of the grape, which is almost always clear, but rather by the presence or absence of the grape skin during fermentation. Grapes with colored juice, for example alicante bouchet, are known as teinturier. Red wine is made from red (or black) grapes, but its red color is bestowed by a process called maceration, whereby the skin is left in contact with the juice during fermentation. White wine can be made from any color of grape as the skin is separated from the juice during fermentation. A white wine made from a very dark grape may appear pink or ‘blush’.
A vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown in a single specified year, and are accordingly dated as such. In the United States for a wine to be vintage dated (and labeled with a country of origin or AVA, such as “Napa Valley” or “New Zealand”) it must contain at least 95% of its volume from wines harvested in that year. If a wine is not labeled with a country of origin or AVA, such as “Napa County”, it must contain at least 85% of its volume from wines harvested in that year. Many wines, particularly good quality red table wines, can improve in flavor with age if properly stored. Consequently, it is not uncommon for wine enthusiasts and traders to save bottles of an especially good vintage wine for future consumption. Most countries allow a vintage wine to include a portion of wine that is not from the labeled vintage. Recent research suggests vintage year may not be as significant to wine quality as currently thought.
For some types of wine, the best-quality grapes and the most care in wine-making are employed on vintage wines and they are therefore more expensive than non-vintage wines. Whilst vintage wines are generally made in a single batch so that each and every bottle will have a similar taste, climatic factors can have a dramatic impact on the character of a wine to the extent that different vintages from the same vineyard can vary dramatically in flavor and quality. Thus, vintage wines are produced to be individually characteristic of the vintage and to serve as the flagship wines of the producer. Non-vintage wines, however, are blended from a number of vintages for consistency, a process which allows wine makers to keep a reliable market image and also maintain sales even in bad vintage years. Superior vintages, from reputable producers and regions, will often fetch much higher prices than their average vintages. Some vintage wines are only made in better-than-average years.
Wines may be classified by their primary impression on the drinker’s palate. They are made up of chemical compounds which are similar or identical to those in fruits, vegetables, and spices. The sweetness of wine is determined by the amount of residual sugar in the wine after fermentation, relative to the acidity present in the wine. Dry wine, for example, has only a small amount of residual sugar.However, a technically dry wine might taste sweet when it is not. For example, fennel might taste sweet, but it isn’t.
Specific flavors may also be sensed, due to the highly complex mix of organic molecules such as esters and terpenes that grape juice and wine can contain. Tasters will also distinguish between flavors characteristic of a specific grape (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon and blackcurrant) and flavors that are imparted by other factors in wine making, either intentional or not. The most typical intentional flavor elements in wine are those that are imparted by aging in oak casks, and virtually every element of chocolate, vanilla, or coffee are actually a factor of oak and not the native grape. Banana flavors (isoamyl acetate) are the product of yeast metabolism, as are spoilage aromas such as sweaty, barnyard, band-aid (4-ethylphenol and 4-ethylguaiacol), and rotten egg (hydrogen sulfide). Some varietals can also have mineral flavour, due to the fact that some soils are soluble in water (as limestone), and thus absorbed by the vine.
Wine aroma is the result of the interaction between components of the grapes and those produced during winemaking process, fermentation and aging. Being served at room temperature increases the vaporization of aroma compounds, making the wine more aromatic. For some red wines that are already highly aromatic, like Chinon and Beaujolais, the volatility of the wine makes it better served chilled.
At the highest end, rare, super-premium wines are amongst the most expensive of all foodstuffs, and outstanding vintages from the best vineyards may sell for thousands of dollars per bottle. Such wines are considered by some as Veblen goods. The most common wines purchased for investment include Bordeaux, cult wines and Port. The reasons for these choices over thousands of other products and regions are:
1. They have a proven track record of holding well over time.
2. Their plateau drinking window (the period for maturity and approachability) is of many, many years, where the taster will be able to enjoy the wine at its best.
3. There is a record of quality and consensus amongst experts as to the uniqueness of the wines.
Investment in fine wine has attracted a number of fraudsters who play on fine wine’s exclusive image and their clients’ ignorance of this sector of the wine market. Wine fraud scams often work by charging excessively high prices for the wine, while representing that it is a sound investment unaffected by economic cycles. Like any investment, proper research is essential before investing. False labeling is another dishonest practice commonly used.
Wines are usually named either by their grape variety or by their place of production. Generally speaking, European wines are named both after the place of production (e.g. Bordeaux, Rioja, Chianti) and the grapes used (e.g. Pinot, Chardonnay, Merlot). Wines from everywhere except Europe are generally named for the grape variety. More and more, however, market recognition of particular regions and wineries is leading to their increased prominence on non-European wine labels. Examples of recognized locales include: Napa Valley, Barossa Valley, Willamette Valley, Cafayate, Marlborough, Walla Walla, etc.
Some blended wine names are marketing terms, and the use of these names is governed by trademark or copyright law, rather than a specific wine law or a patent on the actual varietal blend or process used to achieve it. For example, Meritage (pronounced to rhyme with “heritage”) is generally a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and may also include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, while the dôle is made from the Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. Use of the term Meritage is protected by licensing agreements by The Meritage Association.
The taste of a wine depends not only on the grape species and varietal blend, but can also depend on the ground and climate (known as terroir) where it is cultivated. Historically, wines have been known by names reflecting their origin, and sometimes style: Bordeaux, Rioja, Mosel and Chianti are all legally defined names, reflecting the traditional wines produced in the named region. These naming conventions or “appellations” (as they are known in France) dictate not only where the grapes in a wine were grown, but also which grapes went into the wine and how they were vinified. The appellation system is strongest in the European Union, but a related system, the American Viticultural Area, restricts the use of certain regional labels in America, such as Napa Valley, Santa Barbara and Willamette Valley. The AVA designations do not restrict the type of grape used.
The inconsistent application of historical European designations offends many producers there. For example, in most of the world, wine labeled Champagne must be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and fermented using a certain method, based on the international trademark agreements included in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. However, in the United States, there exists a legal definition called semi-generic that enables U.S. winemakers to use certain generic terms (Champagne, Hock, Sherry, etc.) if there appears next to the term the actual appellation of origin in order to prevent any possible confusion.
Uses of Wine
Wine is a popular and important beverage that accompanies and enhances a wide range of European and Mediterranean-style cuisines, from the simple and traditional to the most sophisticated and complex. Wine is important in cuisine not just for its value as a beverage, but as a flavor agent (primarily in stocks and braising) in which its acidity lends balance to rich savory or sweet dishes. Red, white and sparkling wines are the most popular, and are also known as light wines, because they only contain approximately 10-14% alcohol. (Alcohol percentages are usually by volume.) The apéritif and dessert wines contain 14-20% alcohol, and are fortified to make them richer and sweeter than the light wines.
The labels on certain bottles of wine suggest that they need to be set aside for an hour before drinking to breathe, while other wines are recommended to be drunk as soon as they are opened. Decanting is controversial subject in wine. In addition to aeration, decanting removes some of the bitter sediments from the bottle. Sediment is more common in older bottles but younger wines benefit more from the aeration.
During aeration, the exposure of younger wines to air often “relaxes” the flavors and makes them taste smoother and better integrated in aroma, texture, and flavor. Wines that are older generally fade (lose their character and flavor intensity) with extended aeration. Breathing, however, does not benefit all wines, and should not therefore be taken to the extreme. In general, wine should be tasted as soon as it is opened to determine how long it may be aerated, if at all.
Religious uses of Wine
The use of wine in religious ceremonies is common to many cultures and regions. Libations often included wine, and the religious mysteries of Dionysus are usually thought to have used wine as an entheogen. Wine plays an integral part of Jewish laws and traditions. The Kiddush, a blessing said before starting the first and second Shabbat or festival meals and Havdallah, a blessing said after the Shabbat or festival are required to be said over wine if available. On Pesach (Passover) during the Seder, it is also required to drink four cups of wine. In the Tabernacle and in the Temple in Jerusalem, the libation of wine was part of the sacrificial service.
In Christian services wine is used in a sacred ritual called Communion or the Eucharist, which originates in Gospel accounts of the Last Supper when Jesus blesses the bread and wine and commands his followers to “do this in remembrance of me.” Wine was used in the rite by all Protestant groups until an alternative arose in 1869 when Methodist minister-turned-dentist Thomas Bramwell Welch applied new pasteurization techniques to stop the natural fermentation process of grape juice. Some Christians who were part of the growing temperance movement pressed for a switch from wine to grape juice, and there remains an ongoing debate between some American Protestant denominations as to whether wine can or should be used in moderation for the Eucharist or for merriment. Outside the United States, most Protestant groups use wine. The use of wine is forbidden under Islam. Iran used to have a thriving wine industry that disappeared after the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Health Effects of Wine Consumption
The health effects of wine (and alcohol in general) are the subject of considerable ongoing study. In the USA, a boom in red wine consumption was initiated in the 1990s by ’60 Minutes’, and other news reports on the French paradox. The French paradox refers to the lower incidence of coronary heart disease in France than in the USA despite high levels of saturated fat in the traditional French diet. Epidemiologists suspect that this difference is attributed to the high consumption of wines by the French, however this suspicion is based on limited scientific evidence.
A series of population studies have observed a J curve association between wine consumption and the risk of heart disease. This means that abstainers and heavy drinkers have an elevated risk, whilst moderate drinkers have a lower risk. Population studies have also found that moderate consumption of other alcoholic beverages may be cardioprotective, though the association is considerably stronger for wine. These studies have found a protective effect from both red wine as well as white wine, though evidence from laboratory studies suggests that red wine may posess superior health benefits.
A chemical called resveratrol is thought to be at least partly responsible for red wines’ health benefits, as it has been shown to exert a range of both cardioprotective as well as chemoprotective mechanisms in animal studies. Resveratrol is produced naturally by grape skins in response to fungal infection, which includes exposure to yeast during fermentation. As white wine has minimal contact with grape skins during this process, it generally contains lower levels of resveratrol. Other beneficial compounds in wine include other polyphenols, antioxidants, and flavonoids.
Whilst evidence from both laboratory studies as well as epidemiology (observational studies) suggests wines’ cardioprotective effect, no evidence from controlled experiments – of which long-term studies are still ongoing – currently exists to determine the specific effect of wine or other alcohol on the risk of developing heart disease or stroke. Moreover, excessive consumption of alcohol including wine can cause some diseases including cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholism. Also the American Heart Association cautions people “not to start drinking … if they do not already drink alcohol. Consult your doctor on the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation”.
Packaging of Wine
Most wines are sold in glass bottles and are sealed using a cork. Recently there has been an increase in the number of wines being sealed with alternative closures such as screwcaps or synthetic plastic “corks”. This is due to that fact that while cork is a sustainable harvest, it may only be procured from trees once a decade; therefore making the volume of cork available relatively fixed. In addition, the use of alternative closures prevents incidence of cork taint, a phenomenon imparting spoilage to the wine after bottling (although alternative closures can also cause other types of wine spoilage).
* Cooper: Someone who makes wooden barrels, casks, and other similar wooden objects.
* Négociant: A wine merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and winemakers, and sells them under his own name. Sometimes, this term is simply a synonym for wine merchant.
* Vintner: A wine merchant or producer.
* Sommelier: A person in a restaurant who specializes in wine. They are usually in charge of assembling the wine list, staff education and making wine suggestions to customers.
* Winemaker: A person who makes wine. May or may not be formally trained.
* Garagista: One who makes wine in a garage (or basement, or home, etc.) An amateur wine maker. Also used in a derrogatory way, when speaking of small scale operations of recent inception, or without pedigree(ie. small scale winemakers of Bordeaux).
* Oenologist: Wine scientist or wine chemist. A winemaker may be trained as oenologist, but often instead uses a consultant oenologist.
* Viticulturist: A person who specializes in the science of the grapevines themselves. Can also be someone who manages a vineyard (decides how to prune, how much to irrigate, how to deal with pests, etc.).
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