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What Is Wine?

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What Actually Is Wine?

The Making of Wine

Wine is the result of the process called fermentation, as are, in their different ways, bread and cheese (which both go so well with wine). Fermentation, to quote in part Wikipedia’s article on it, is “a metabolic process converting sugar to acids, gases and/or alcohol. It occurs in yeast and bacteria”. More simply stated, wine is what results after yeasts have fed on the sugars in fruit juice. Yeasts are micro-organisms classed as fungi (same family as mushrooms). The kinds used—there are many, and yeast selection is today an important part of wine-making, though in times past it was whatever fell out of the air into the fruit juice—take in those sugars as their food and excrete (sorry, that’s the correct term) carbon dioxide gas and alcohol as the byproducts. In baking, it is the carbon dioxide gas that is the wanted byproduct; in winemaking, it is, of course, the alcohol.

The only fruit whose juice can be made into wine without adulteration is grapes. All other substances (and things besides fruit juice are used, as witness rice wine, dandelion wine, and barley wine) need extra sugars to be added to the “natural” juices to provide the right biochemical balance for yeasts to work their wonders. Even some grape harvests may come up a little shy on sugar. The process of adding extra sugar to grape juice intended for wine is called Chaptalization, and is generally frowned on; in fact, it is flatly forbidden by law in many places, and closely regulated in virtually all wine-producing regions. (Though even the Romans added honey to some of their grape juices.) One must understand that adding sugars is not done to increase the sweetness of the resulting wine, and rarely if ever does so; it is added because the sugar level in the original juice is not high enough to make proper wine (remember, the sugars all, or usually it’s all—see the next paragraph—become alcohol).

Normally, fermentation is allowed to proceed till the sugars are essentially 100% consumed by the yeasts, at which point the process stops naturally. Obviously, then, the amount of alcohol in the resulting wine will depend on the amount of sugar there was in the original grape (or other) juice. Owing as much as anything to historical norms, wine drinkers expect their table wines to run from perhaps 8% alcohol up to perhaps 15% or 16% alcohol, though wines at or near either end of that spectrum are usually not favored. The more typical range for table wine is 11% or 12% to 14% or at most 15%; wines with relatively high alcohol are typically sensed as, and described as, “hot”, and that is not a term of approbation.

The trend to higher-alcohol wines is a quite modern one. Not so many years ago, most table wines were in the range of perhaps 10% to 12% or 13% alcohol. But the strictures imposed by the massive amounts of tasting done by professionals whose wine ratings are eagerly followed—Robert Parker, for example, has claimed to taste, and reliably rate, an average of over 10,000 wines a year—mean that delicate wines easily get lost. Under such pressure, it is the “big” wines that will stand out, and thus get higher ratings. There is now a growing counter-revolution, with many sommeliers asserting, with varying degrees of truth, that they will not stock wines over 14% alcohol, which happens to be the legal line between “regular” and “high-alcohol” wines under U.S. law. Recent wine books refer to the dire days of monster wines as an unregretted thing of the past, and we may hope that it indeed is.

The color of a wine is not necessarily correlated with the color of the grapes from which it was made, as reddish grapes can be used to produce white wines. The chief determinant of wine color is the extent to which the juice is initially left in contact with the grape skins after the pressing that extracts the juice from the grapes—for it is the skin, not the flesh, that contains the substance (anthocyanin) that colors wines. (There are some grape varieties whose flesh also colors wine—teinturier grapes—but they are few.)

Those wanting more detail on wine-making can find it in the Wikipedia article on that topic.

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The Vineyard Effect

In the vineyard, the longer grapes remain on the vine, the more two things happen: their flavoring increases, and their sugar content increases. But different grapes have different growing season lengths, sometimes sharply differing. And, of course, the typical length of the growing season in a given region strongly affects what grape types can thrive there. There is a profound old saying in the business: wine is made in the vineyard. Thus, the problems facing the grower can be huge. Often, for grape types that are inherently low in sugar, it is a race to see if they can reach a satisfactory sugar level before frost kills them off; with others, the problem is that they may be developing their sugars faster than the other biochemicals that give them the wanted flavors, so that exactly when to harvest again is a delicate and critical decision.

(Some grape types are so inevitably high-sugar that they cannot be fermented to completion without producing a wine too alcoholic to be classed by law as a table wine; with such varieties, the normal practice is to artificially, often by the application of cold to the fermenting tank, stop the fermentation process while some sugars yet remain, producing a wine somewhere from slightly to very sweet. Perhaps historically making a virtue of necessity, several such wines have become highly valued and much sought-after. Sweet wines are often characterized by their “RS”, that being “Residual Sugar”, normally expressed as a percentage. There are also treasured sweet wines made in other ways, which we will not deal with here.)

If wine as we usually use the word is made exclusively from grapes, it is not made from just any old grapes. The species of grape used for “serious” wine production is Vitis vinifera, and that species includes all the various races that we normally call varieties (such as, say, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay). Nowadays, with advances in biochemistry and DNA analysis, we further realize that a given varietal may exist as a large number of clones, each differing slightly but, often, in important ways from the others. More and more frequently today, once lowly grapes are assuming more importance as the most useful clones are located, identified, and propagated. (It is our conviction that virtually any Vitis vinifera grape can, given sufficient dedicated care in the growing and vinification, make excellent wine; but there are some varieties for which that level of dedication is economically impossible given the real-world marketplace, so we have greater and lesser reputations for the various grape varieties.)

(Something wine profesionals emphasize is that varietal is the adjective and variety the noun, meaning that we should not refer to different grapes as “varietals”, a too-common practice.)

We should also note that wine is still made from other Vitis species, notably Vitis labrusca, which was widely used in the cooler regions of North America (for example, Concord); such wines are rather looked down on as shabby imitations of “real” wine. (These wines are frequently described as having a “foxy” quality, which more than one wag has suggested means they smell like a wet fox.) In modern times, there have been a few successful crosses between V. vinifera and V. labrusca types to make grapes that produce wines that are reasonably palatable but which can be grown where it is just too cold for any V. vinifera types to ripen.

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