By Tim Rodgers
I think we should start this chronicle by answering the most basic questions about wine of who, what, where, when, and how? What is wine? Well, in the most elemental terms, wine is simply fermented grape juice. The five basic types are red, white, rosé, sparkling, and fortified. Anthropologists believe that the first wine was discovered by some knuckle-dragging cave dweller that left some wild grapes in a clay pot. (kind of ironic that wine drinking today is associated with the most elite amongst us, but I digress…) Left out over a week or so in that pot, the natural yeasts on the grape skins fermented and the mash turned into a crude wine. Then they had the first party known to mankind….sweet.
The first wines historians know of were predominant in the Mediterranean area, the Middle East, Egypt, and throughout Europe during the middle ages. The oldest known wine making facility dates back 6000 years in Armenia. The Christopher Columbus contingency brought the first grape vines to the Americas in the 1500’s as we see winemaking expand into what is today known as Mexico, South America, and ultimately into the Southwestern United States and California. Eventually overtime, the vine was also introduced to Australia. Today, “winos” refer to “classic wine” producers as the aforementioned European producers. Wines concocted in the Americas and Australia, are known as the “New World” producers. Now wine is made on every continent except Antarctica. (I wonder if the experts should count the wine that is produced on C-Block at Graterford Prison made from kool-aid fermented in a zip-lock bag under the bottom bunk, but yet again, I digress)
Just like a master chef classically trained in French cuisines, the food that is produced is only as good as the ingredients used to make it. The same applies to wine making. Wine is only as good as the grapes used to ferment it. Therefore, wine makers are extremely concerned with the cultivating of the grapes in their vineyards. They are constantly in the process of testing and experimenting with different soils and what kind of trellis system to use. A trellis system is simply the framework of wood and wire used to support the vine of the grapes as they grow. By keeping the grapes off of the ground, exposed to more sunlight, and better air circulation will ultimately increase the quality of the grape. Also, when the grapes are harvested it is also critical as to the overall quality and taste of the wine. Overtime, winemakers have figured out that a grape vine that struggles to grow actually makes better wine. Just as in life, struggle builds character.
The first step in making wine is crushing the grapes. The purpose of this process is to break the skins away from the grape itself and to release the juices. Many of you have seen the picture of the nice Portuguese fellow dancing on a pile of grapes in a festive fashion thinking to yourself, “did he wash his feet first?” Well, many old school wine makers believe that there is nothing like the human foot to break the grapes because they won’t break any seeds which release harsh tannins into the juice. (Perhaps different toe cheeses and foot fungi account for some more quality vintages…but once again sorry, I digress.)
White grapes are pressed to separate the skins before fermenting as opposed to red grapes being fermented with the skins in the mash and eventually pressed later which give the wine its red color. Both the juices from red and/or white grapes are clear. Therefore, white wine can be made from red or white grapes. Next, the wine matures in oak or steel barrels before it is eventually bottled. Red wine is fermented at a higher temperature than white wine which contributes to the coloring and tannin extraction. In some cases, the wine is moved from barrel to barrel to remove sediment known as lees. This process is known as “racking”.
As far as some of the other styles are concerned, Rosé for example is processed similar to red wines, but the grapes are only fermented with the skins for a shorter amount of time giving it a slightly less “red” color that appears pink or rose colored if you will. The cheaper/easier rosé is made by merely blending the red wine fermented juices with the white wine juice. It’s kind of like cheating. Fortified wines are wines that have had some sort of spirit such as brandy added after the fermentation process. These are your port and sherry wines. (I like some Sherry in my Snapper Turtle soup…oh sorry, digression) Lastly, sparkling wines are wines that have additional sugars and yeast added during the fermenting process which give the wine the carbonation. Champagne is the example that comes to mind here.
Speaking for myself at an adolescent age, I was introduced to alcohol by reluctantly forcing-down Natural Light cans of beer for what I thought was a decent buzz. Today, I like to consider myself a connoisseur of beer. But, as my taste buds matured, I was fortunate enough early on (like 19 years old with a fake ID) to be introduced to some Belgian Ales, American IPA’s, Stouts, etc. and found a new appreciation and respect for quality beverages. For me, this also applies to wines. I think with some understanding of how the process works, the differences, and the nuances of wine, a new door can be opened to the world of wine for anyone. Plus, if you need to impress a girl, boss, or anybody at a restaurant, stay tuned for more from Whiskey Goldmine and the Wine Chronicles to get your understanding and appreciation of wine-on. Cheers!