What Is Wine? Part 1
Hello, fellow wine enthusiast,
Thanks for joining The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Wine! I’m Paul Kalemkiarian, the second-generation owner and cellarmaster of the Original Wine of the Month Club®.
These days, there are a lot of wine clubs, but when my dad started in 1972, his was the very first. Dad loved good wine and sharing with others; he passed that along to me. I’ve learned a few things along the way, and I want to share my passion for wine with you. For starters, we’ll explore the origin of wine, how grapes turn into wine, how wine is naturally preserved, and the role of the winemaker.
Wine Is Made from Fresh Grapes
Wine is, of course, an alcoholic drink. It’s made from freshly gathered grapes that are fermented in the region where they grow. In Britain, the word is also used to describe alcoholic drinks made from rhubarb or elderflowers—or anything that will ferment—but these “country wines” are not actually wine. Wine must be made from grapes, and these grapes must be fresh.
From vine to bottle, the process of winemaking is a natural one. Vitis vinifera, the winemaking species of grape, holds in each berry everything necessary for fermentation. During fermentation, yeast attacks sugar, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Look at any grape, and you’ll see a whitish bloom on the skin containing millions of yeast cells. Bite through the skin and you’ll taste a fruity sweetness—the sugar. Normally, hanging in bunches on the vine, these two reactive components are separated. But when you pick the bunch and gently crush the grapes, they come into contact and begin transforming. Left alone, grape juice will ferment either until all the sugar has been used up or until the level of alcohol becomes so high that it kills off the remaining yeasts.
Very sweet grapes with a high concentration of sugar are, therefore, capable of producing relatively strong wine. If the sugar level is exceptional, the wine will be alcoholic and sweet. More often, the sugar is used up before the alcohol represents more than 8-12% (average strength), making a naturally dry wine. Sometimes sweetness is put back after the yeasts have been filtered.
When tasting a grape—any grape—you’ll notice that the skin itself will seem bitter, as will the stalk. This bitterness comes from tannin, which is particularly important in making red wines intended to mature, because it acts as a preservative.
The Winemaker’s Role
Ever since people first realized that grapes, picked and crushed, produced juice that fermented of its own accord, there have been winemakers. Nothing impacts the taste of wine as much as the raw materials, including the variety of grapes and the conditions in which the vines are grown and nurtured. Throughout the centuries, however, winemakers have found all sorts of ways of influencing vinification to achieve particular styles of wine. Winemakers can alter the course of nature to make good, indifferent, or even bad wine.
If ingredients are fresh and of good quality, and if basic rules are followed, the final result should be good quality wine. But just as each cook has an individual touch, every winemaker aims to produce wines that bear their own stamp. The temperature and length of time of fermentation, the choice of wooden barrels or stainless steel tanks, the age and size of the casks, and the period before bottling are all factors the winemaker can control to influence the character of the finished wine. Much of the fascination of wine tasting lies in guessing exactly how each particular wine was made.
To continue your wine education, next time we’ll focus on the conditions that yield quality grapes. There’s a saying about wine growing: “Where the plough may go, no great wines grow.”
What does that mean? We’ll look into that tomorrow!
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