The basics of enjoying and understanding wine.
Each of us is evolving in our personal cultural experience. Perhaps you too have come to the place where you’re ready to experience more adventure as a connoisseur. There is culture in wine. It can be found in the ritual of drinking it, appreciating the craft of the winemaker, and in the wine’s stimulation to our taste buds. And now, let us pursue the pure taste enjoyment of wine.
When we drink wine, our taste buds are stimulated in a unique way and the alcohol has a calming effect on the brain. Human taste has four components: sweetness, saltiness, acidity and bitterness. The acidity and sweetness in wine are the two factors that balance together to produce a pleasant sensation on our sense of taste. We taste the acidity with the middle of the tongue and sweetness with the tip of the tongue.
Wines with excessive acidity taste harsh, those with insufficient acidity taste uninteresting and their flavor does not linger in the mouth long enough. Tannins contribute to the relationship of bitterness on the tongue. If you’ve ever chewed into grape seeds, then you’ve tasted the dry bitterness of tannin. Wine with too much tannin is unpleasantly bitter. The right level of tannin has an effect of bringing all the flavors together with a good “grip” in the mouth. The various fruit-like flavors detectable in wine contribute nuances to the sweetness we taste. It’s fun trying to detect different fruit characteristics, such as berries, plums, apples, pears…
Our other senses are involved as well. Our sight enjoys the color and our sense of smell enjoys the fragrances. Much of a wine’s character is revealed only through the aroma it exudes. This adds richly to the dimensions found in wine.
There are many species of grapes, but most of the world’s wine is made from the Vitis vinifera family, of European origin. Wine grapes have various unique, signature characteristics. Check out the following varietal grapes:
Popular Red Varieties
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
- Syrah (Shiraz)
Popular White Varieties
- Grüner Veltliner
- Pinot Blanc
- Sauvignon Blanc
How Wine is Made
Wine grapes, Vitis vinifera, grow easily in any temperate to warm climate. A solution of sugar and water develops in ripe grapes and the skins easily allow the growth of natural yeasts. In the fermentation process, these single cell organisms consume the natural sugar and change it into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. This rather simple process has been observed and used for thousands of years in human culture. In the past hundred years or so, technology and new ideas from winemakers have played an ever-increasing role in the making of wine. It’s becoming more and more a science and an art.
Here are the basic principles of winemaking. The grapes are either harvested by hand (this is best), or with mechanical harvesters. Exposure to air should be kept to a minimum at all stages of the process. Sometimes powdered sulfites are sprinkled on the grapes prior to crushing to prevent too much reaction with the air. The fermentation usually takes place in open vats. Several processes may be employed to give the wine clarity: fining and filtration for example. Shortly after fermentation has ended, the wine is transferred to a settling tank where filtration and other clarification techniques may be used.
The Differences Between Red Wine and White Winemaking
There are significant differences between red wine and white wine production. Basically, red wine is the outcome of crushed, fermented grapes. White wine is the outcome of fermented grape juice (that is, no skins or meat of the fruit). Blush wines, out of interest, are made from red grapes that are made into wine as though they were white grapes. The red grape skins add a bit of color and nutrients to the juice being made into blush or rosé, leaving a slight blush of red in the wine.
All grapes contain the same kind of green fruity-meat, but red grapes have red skins and in the winemaking process, there is a considerable amount of color, flavors and tannins that are imparted to the final product. After crushing, the red grapes, skins and all, sit in a fermentation vat for a period of time. Picture a huge plastic bin with a mixture of crushed grapes and juice with a layer of crushed wet skins on top. The skins tend to rise to the surface of the mixture, forming a layer on top. This top layer is frequently mixed back into the fermenting juice (called must). After fermentation has stopped, about one to two weeks later, the new wine is drawn from the vat. A bit of “free run” juice is allowed to pour and then the remaining must is squeezed, yielding “press wine”. The wine is clarified and then transferred to oak aging barrels so that it may mature. When the winemaker considers the wine ready, it is transferred to bottles and labeled.
Right after picking, white grapes are put into a crushing machine. In the process, the skins are separated from the juice, an important difference over the red wine process. Some adjustments are sometimes made to the acid or sugar levels at this stage (the addition of sugar is called “chaptalization”). The clarified juice is then ready for fermentation.
Yeast is then added to the juice for fermentation. Before long the white grape juice becomes white wine. At this point, some further tinkering is usually called for: filtering, and perhaps the addition of sweeter juice to round out the flavor. The wine is then aged by storing in oak or stainless steel containers, and after a few months, it is bottled.
For the purpose of wine making you can classify grapes into three distinct groups:
Native Wild Grapes (Vitis Muscadinia): These are grapes such as Muscadine (Scuppernong), Fox and Frost grape. They are extremely sharp tasting due to their high acid content and have a strong assertive to pungent flavor and aroma. They are also lower in sugar than other grapes. This class of grape can be distinguished from others by the fact they do not grow in clusters, but rather, as separate berries.
Native Wine Grapes (Vitis Lambrusca): These are grapes such as Concord, Catawba, Niagara and Delaware. They are indigenous to the North American continent. While their flavor and aroma are not excessive like that of the wild grapes, their acidity level can be a little on the high side making the juice slightly too sharp tasting. Their sugar level is also much higher than that of wild grapes.
European Wine Grapes (Vitis Vinifera): These are grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Chardonnay and many others that were brought over from Europe. Hybrid grapes such as Reliance, Foch, Chambourcin and Vignoles are also considered to be in this group. Only on occasion are these grapes too sharp or acidic in flavor and their sugar content is generally higher than that of native wine grapes and much higher than that of wild grapes.
What are some of your favorite wine 101 basics? Leave your comments below.