Long before current sanitizing methods were known, people developed a simple and effective way to ensure the safety of the water that they had available to them. They routinely added the fermented juices of a variety of fruits to the drinking water. The alcohol contained in these juices was strong enough to kill harmful organisms, and leave people with clean water to use. The production and use of wine, which is documented as far back as biblical times, continued for centuries as a very powerful tool against waterborne illnesses. Over time, traditions formed around its use, and it became a permanent fixture in human culture.
Today, due to modern technology, wine is no longer necessary to keep us healthy, however, its use and production continues. The making of wine, once merely a necessity, has become an art form. Good wine, valued for its taste, age, and origin, can run upwards of $500 a bottle. Like diamonds, the subtleties of the wine and how it is made give it its great value.
Wine, although it can be made from any fruit, usually begins its life as a grape. Red and green grapes are carefully grown in vineyards under strict conditions. Harvest usually begins in late summer, between the months of July and September. The grapes are sorted by sweetness, size, color, and ripeness and then sent to the wine producers to be processed. Weather and other natural occurrences such as diseases may affect a whole crop, and consequently, a whole batch of wine. Therefore, the date and location of the wine, or the vintage, can be used to judge the quality, even if the process in which the wine was made remains the same.
Once the grapes arrive at the wineries, the real work begins. The grapes are crushed and turned to a pulpy juice called must. Traditionally, the grapes would be stomped on to extract this juice. Although some wineries still employ this method, most use special grape presses to do the dirty work. After the must is extracted, the winery must decide which type of wine is to be made.
There are three main types of non-sparkling wines, white, red, and pink (blush) wine. White wines are created using the filtered must of white grapes, leaving the wine clear and colorless. Red wine is made using unfiltered must from red grapes. The skins and stems left in the must impart chemicals called tannins in the wine that give it its distinctive flavor. Blush wines are made from the filtered must of red grapes, and share qualities of both red and white wines.
The alcohol contained in wine is created by yeasts, which ferment the sugars found in the grapes. Several types of yeast can be used, each giving the wine a unique flavor, but the most common yeast is from the Saccharomyces genus. Wild bacteria and yeasts can cause undesirable flavors, spoilage, or vinegar to be produced, therefore, wine is usually sterilized using sulfur compounds before being inoculated with yeast. In addition to the yeast, many wine producers add beneficial bacteria to the wine to change the flavors.
To ferment properly, the wine is placed in large stainless steel vessels and allowed to sit at room temperature for a period of two to five weeks. During this time, the sugar is converted to alcohol by the yeast. If all the sugar in the must is fermented, then the wine is known as a dry wine. Likewise, sweet wines are made by stopping the fermentation process early by the addition of distilled spirits. These wines still contain sugar and therefore have a sweeter taste. Both dry and sweet wines are commonly produced and sold. The resulting alcohol content in the wine after fermentation is known as the heaviness of the wine. Heavy wines contain a higher percentage of alcohol, and thin wines, a lower. Generally, wines have between seven and fourteen percent alcohol content, although some ‘fortified’ wines may have up to 30 percent due to the addition of brandy.
After the fermentation process is finished, the dead yeast and other impurities are filtered from the wine, and it is moved into large wooden barrels and allowed to mature. This process may take several weeks or (in the case of very expensive wines) up to several years. During this time, the chemicals found in the wood change the wine’s flavor. The type of wood used for the barrels as well as the temperature and length of time the wine is allowed to mature all contribute to the flavor and quality (i.e. price) of the wine. Once mature, the wine is pasteurized to remove any microorganisms, and bottled.
It is a common misconception that good wine must be aged after it is bottled. The truth is that most wine is drunk ‘young’, or within a year or two of its vintage. While some wines ‘mature’ and become better with age, others will not, and should be drunk soon after bottling. Most of the wine that is allowed to age is red wine, although there are varieties of ‘ageable’ white and blush wines. Red wine contains tannins, which, over time, precipitate out of the wine and become sediment. This causes the bitterness of the wine created by the tannins to diminish and the natural fruit flavors to become more apparent.
In order to properly age wines, certain storage procedures must be followed. Temperature is a major consideration in storage, as high temperatures or rapid fluctuations in temperature may cause undesired chemical changes in the wine. Cool and stable temperatures, around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, will contribute to the proper storage of the wine. Light will also damage wine, therefore, colored wine bottles and a dark storage area are desired. In low humidity, the corks may shrink and let air react with the wine, consequently, a humidity of around 60 percent is also desired. If properly stored, white and blush wines may be kept up to ten years, and red wines can be aged for thirty or more.
Due to the complexity of its production, there is an endless variety of the types of wine that is produced. Each type has its own intricacies and subtleties that add to its value and taste.
Wine is still an important feature in our society. It is part of our traditions as well as a luxury for many people, whether it be to complete a delicious meal, to toast a special occasion, or just to enjoy the quality and craftsmanship of a good wine.
Winemaking, going back thousands of years, may be one of the oldest occupations and art forms. The talent, work, and dedication involved in making a good wine is immense and, like paintings or music, should always be appreciated, so, raise a glass and enjoy!
For selecting wine see: wine guide.