With that in mind, What is Wine is about getting back to basics. We started last month with Vintage. And while I may get a little geeky, I do my best to try and make the essentials of wine as easy to understand as I can. So let’s start at the beginning.
In the beginning…well ok, maybe not quite the beginning, but a pretty long time ago, there was wine. In fact, just recently, archaeologists discovered a palace in modern day Israel that apparently housed the oldest wine cellar ever found. The wine cellar is believed to date to 1700 B.C. An archaeological dig in modern day Iran claims to have unearthed vessels from 5000 B.C. that scientists believe once held wine. And both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Tanakh tell the story of Noah who after the flood “proceeded to plant a vineyard” and “drank some of its wine.”
Back to a bit of history… Oftentimes, wine in the ancient world was also spiced with various ingredients. Recipes have been found in ancient texts and residue recovered from clay vessels that lead us to believe ancient winemakers spiced their wines with ingredients such as honey. Often the wines were also resinated. (Wine used to be stored in clay amphorae or pots that were sealed or coated with pine resin to keep them watertight. The wine would pick up resin flavor from this sealant much in the same way wine takes on an oak character from being stored in oak barrels today. You can still find retsina--the modern name for this style of wine--in wine stores today. Kourtaki is a common producer.) Over the centuries, the addition of spices has faded, but wine is still made essentially the same way. Take a bunch of grapes, press them to get the juice out, let it ferment and sometimes age, bottle and drink. Let’s talk about some of the details.
Vitis vinifera originally comes from Europe, but can now be found all over the world. There is, however, a sweet spot for production. Almost all grapevines grown for making wine are located between the 30th and 50th parallels latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It takes about three years for a grapevine to start producing grapes that can be made into wine. This is why replanting vines for a winemaker is a significant investment. Not only is she paying for the new vines and all the time and labor it takes to plant them, but then she must wait three years to see a return on her investment. Grapes are harvested in the Fall (August - November) in the northern hemisphere and in the Spring (March - May) in the southern hemisphere. So when you start seeing 2014 New Zealand sauvignon blanc on the shelves this October, don’t be alarmed, the grapes were harvested this past spring and so the wine had several months to be made.
Ok, so some of you may be asking at this point, why do I care about the grapes? Well, in wine, we use grapes as a reference to talk about the wine. When you start talking about how much you hate merlot or that you like the fruitiness of riesling, you’re really talking about the grapes. Merlot and riesling are two examples of vitis vinifera grape types. Some of the other common grapes you may be familiar with are: sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio/gris, chardonnay, sangiovese, pinot noir, syrah/shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel. These are all technically different vitis vinifera grape names that we’ve used to describe the wine made from those grapes. It may sound confusing, but I think of it kind of like cuts of meat. There’s not just beef, there’s chuck, sirloin, round, rib, etc. They’re all beef, just different types.
This is De Long's Wine Grape Varietal Table. It lists just a few of the thousands of grape varieties that exist along with their most common characteristics.
These days, it’s pretty much always done with a computerized press. It works mostly the same way, but the parts are typically metal or plastic and the squeezing is controlled by a computer. This gives the winemaker a lot more control in how much pressure she uses.
Next up in the What is Wine series I’ll talk all about the grape juice, after all, you can’t have wine without grape juice.