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Wines @ Otherwhere ©

Wine, alcoholic beverage produced by fermenting the juice of grapes. Today, as throughout history, wine is produced in temperate zones worldwide. The best grapes for wine are a product of thin, flinty soil. Traditionally, grapes have been grown in vineyards bordering on rivers, which early in the history of the industry, in such regions as the Rhine, Rhône, and Loire valleys of Europe, provided convenient transport.

Classification of Wine
Wine is classified in three major categories. Table wines, also called still or natural wines, are consumed primarily as complements to food. Sparkling wines, for example champagne, distinguishable by their effervescence, are drunk for the most part on festive occasions. Fortified wines, such as sherry or vermouth, are most commonly drunk before or after meals and are also frequently used in cooking. These wines are termed fortified because their alcoholic and sugar content are increased and their fermentation arrested by the controlled addition of a more potent liquor, usually a grape brandy, during the wine- making process; this results in an alcoholic content of 15 to 22 percent by volume, as against 9 to 14 percent for most table wines. Table wines are further classified by color, as red, white, or rosé (pink); and by character, as sweet or dry. Red wines are made from dark grapes, the skins of which are allowed to remain in contact with the fermenting juice for a period of from two days to three weeks, depending on the character and depth of color desired. White wines may be made from “white” (that is, green) grapes or from dark grapes, but in the latter case the grape skins and pressed juice do not come into contact. True rosé wines are the products of dark grapes; their skins remain in contact with the juice only until they have turned it a pale pink. In the wine lexicon, sweet and dry (as opposed to sour, which denotes wine gone bad) are antonyms, sweet wines being characterized by a relatively dulcet flavor and dry wines by an absence of sweetness. Many wines are still further classified according to their regions of origin. In France, for example, six well-defined regions—Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Côtes du Rhône, the Loire Valley, Champagne, and Alsace—account for the most distinctive products of this great wine-producing country. Bordeaux, the most important of these regions, is further divided into 36 officially designated districts, among the outstanding of which are Médoc, Graves, and Saint Emilion. These districts in turn are further divided into communes (for example, Margaux in the Médoc district), within which lie world-renowned individual vineyards, such as Château Lafite-Rothschild. In the Bordeaux region, the classification of wines is rooted in a system instituted in 1855, when château-bottled wines were rated as crus classés (“classified growths”) in five grades of desirability based on a variety of subjective and objective criteria. Although the dependability of the 1855 rating system has been called into question, it remains basically trustworthy. To varying degrees, but rarely with the specificity to be found in France (Alsace excepted), most other European wine-growing nations similarly classify their products. Thus, Chianti in Italy and the Rioja wines of Spain originate in specific regions of those names, and such wines as Valpolicella, Bernkasteler, and Piesporter are named for the towns or villages that produce them. Outside Europe, wines are often categorized generically, in accordance with their supposed resemblances to established regional or localized European types; examples are New York State champagne and Chilean Sauternes. Since the 1970s, however, the majority of California wines have been labeled by variety, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon; that is, their names are taken from the specific varieties of grapes from which they are made. This practice has been adopted in many other countries.

The production, use, and enjoyment of wine dates from at least the beginnings of recorded history. Perhaps the earliest vineyards were cultivated in the Caucasus between 6000 and 4000 BC, and wine was known by 3000 BC in Mesopotamia, where it supplanted beer as the principal alcoholic beverage. Wine was used for sacramental purposes in Egypt no later than the start of the 3rd millennium BC, although evidence indicates that it was not produced there for general consumption for another 2000 years. In one of the earliest recorded references to wine as a natural adjunct to gastronomy, the 5th-century BC Greek historian Herodotus described the diet of Egyptian priests as “bread made for them out of sacred grain, and a plentiful supply of goose-meat and beef, with wine in addition.” It remained for the ancient Greeks to develop viticulture, or the cultivation of grapes, on a commercial scale and to market their wines abroad. Thick and viscous, these wines had to be considerably diluted with water before they could be drunk. The wines of the Greeks, much in demand throughout the ancient world, were fermented in vats coated with resin, thereby deriving a turpentinelike quality perhaps similar to that of the best-known modern Greek wine, retsina. After fermentation, they were filtered into animal skins for domestic consumption or into clay amphorae (storage vessels) for export. Neither type of container was airtight, and the wines consequently kept poorly. Various regional formulas were developed in attempts to arrest spoilage; one such recipe called for the introduction into the wine of a well-aged mixture of herbs, spices, and condensed seawater. However unappetizing ancient Greek wines might seem to present-day palates, they were much beloved by the Greeks themselves, who worshiped the wine god Dionysius and who left in their art and literature ample evidence of the important part wine played in their life and ritual. The Romans also loved wine. As the Roman Empire expanded, vineyards were planted wherever the soil and climate were favorable—in Spain, Gaul, Sicily, Etruria, Illyria, and North Africa. Before long, domestic production of wine in Gaul so far outstripped that of Italy that the Roman Senate passed legislation designed to restrict wine production in the colonies. The laws appear to have had little effect; by the late 1st century AD, vineyards were so extensively cultivated that cereal production dwindled, prompting the emperor Domitian to decree that half the provincial vineyard acreage be replanted with other crops. Both the production and the quality of wine declined steadily in Europe during the early Middle Ages. The relatively little that was produced was consumed locally, and because wine was needed for Christian sacraments, it was for the most part the produce of ecclesiastical foundations. Not until the 12th century did the great wine-growing districts begin to recover. North Americans are relative latecomers to wine connoisseurship but tend today to take a far less parochial view of the subject than Europeans, who customarily restrict their interest to local products. Viticulture, too, is relatively new to the continent; Franciscan missionaries planted the first large-scale vineyards in California only 200 years ago, and these had to be reestablished almost from scratch after the repeal of Prohibition. Nonetheless, California table wines now compete with the fine wines of Europe. Other states, including New York and Washington, have developed growing wine industries, producing good quality wine. Today, about 70 percent of the U.S. wine market is made up of American wine. A malign by-product of the California vineyards in the 19th century threatened the extinction of European wines. The plant louse Phylloxera vitifoliae, carried to Europe on California rootstocks, caused a pandemic, devastating some 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of vineyards in France alone. Ultimately, the tide was turned when Europe's vineyards were replanted entirely with Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks native to the eastern U.S., onto which vines of the European wine grape, Vitas vinefera, were grafted.

Wine Making
Centuries of experience have conclusively demonstrated that wine grapes grow best in temperate zones, for even dormant vines cannot survive severe subarctic cold, and tropical heat seriously interferes with the grapes' ideal growth cycle. The locales best suited for growing specific grape varieties were also long ago established. Broadly stated, several crucial variables determine the quality of a given wine in a given year, or vintage year: the judiciousness with which the grapevines are pruned between growing seasons (pruning produces a limited but superior yield, as fewer grapes receive more nourishment); the suitability of the soil for the optimal nourishment and growth of grapes planted there; the relative amounts of sunshine and rainfall to which the vines are subjected during the growing season; the absorption capacity of the soil in the event of uncommonly heavy rainfall; the timing of the harvest; the vinification (the wine-making process); and the storage of the immature wine. Vinification is generally accomplished by allowing the juice of perfectly ripe grapes to ferment. (An exception is certain sweet white wines, such as the Sauternes of France, for which the grapes are deliberately harvested late—after the onset of a white mold, Botrytis cinera, has caused a condition called pourriture noble, or noble rot, and an unusually high sugar content.) Until recently, fermentation was accomplished exclusively in wooden vats, but modern vinification methods increasingly make use of glass-lined or stainless steel tanks, both for sanitary considerations and because they allow more precise control. In the normal course of vinification, the harvested grapes are separated from their stalks at the winery and lightly pressed to release their juice, which is then transferred to the fermentation vats or tanks, where it remains for periods varying from days to weeks. Traditionally, the fermentation process has been effected by yeast cells present in the grape skins, but special strains of cultured yeast are now often substituted for the natural agent. As the juice—a combination of sugar and water—converts to a solution of alcohol and water, carbon dioxide is released as a by-product and, in the case of red wine, tannin and color are absorbed from the grape skins by the fermenting juice. With the exception of the sweet wines referred to above, fermentation continues until all sugar in the juice has been converted to alcohol. Tannin is found to an appreciable degree only in red wines; its presence is a concomitance of the coloring process. Its mild astringency constitutes the primary taste difference between red and white wines. With certain exceptions—the results of unusually short vatting time—the tannin content of very young red wines is excessive. As these wines age in the bottle, however, most of their tannin is neutralized chemically and combines with some of the coloring matter to form a harmless sediment that can be discarded by decanting the wine. The degree of dryness of a given red wine is determined by its residual tannin content: the more tannin present, the drier the wine. After poor growing seasons, when grapes have not ripened sufficiently, sugar often is added to the grape juice during fermentation. Without this intervention, insufficiently ripened grapes will not produce an alcohol content high enough to stabilize the resultant wine. At some stage before bottling, all wines are also “fined,” that is, treated, by filtering them to remove impurities. Most wines are further treated just before bottling to remove vestigial impurities. In the case of inexpensive products, this treatment usually takes the form of brief exposure to heat (flash pasteurization), a process that effectively ends development of the bottled wine. For the better wines, however, extremely fine filtration systems are used, and the wine continues to undergo organic change as it ages in the bottle. In addition to natural vat fermentation, some wines are also subjected to malolactic fermentation. This process takes place in the bottle, where malic acid is converted to lactic acid and carbon dioxide, thereby decreasing the acidity of the wine while lending it a delicate effervescence.

Ideally, the label on any wine bottle should provide the knowledgeable consumer with all the information required to determine the nature and quality of the contents. This is usually the case with the finest wines but rarely so with more ordinary products. Most wine names are place names, and the more narrowly the terrain is defined, the sounder the basis for advance judgment of the product. Thus, the designation Bordeaux is far too inclusive to convey much meaning, but Graves identifies a wine from a particular district of Bordeaux and conveys a reasonably good idea of its character. A truly meritorious wine will specify both the vineyard of origin (the name of the château in the case of most French wines) and the year of vintage. A few French and many non-French wines are named for the type of grape from which they are pressed (for example, Riesling, Pinot Noir, or zinfandel). Unless the point of origin of such wines is specified, however, these terms are in themselves virtually meaningless, for the same kind of grape grown in different locales will produce very different wines.

Serving and Storing Wine
Much detailed information is now available to those who wish to learn to appreciate wines and to serve them properly, but certain general rules are always to be observed. Bottles of older wines should be opened at least half an hour before they are to be poured to allow the wine to “breathe”; care should be taken to avoid overcooling those wines that are best served chilled. Certain types of wine and food long have been considered complementary. Thus, champagne is the usual accompaniment of caviar; dry white wines are served with hors d'oeuvres, fish, shellfish, and light fowl in blond sauces; and Bordeaux-type reds accompany roast fowl and the lighter roast meats, while heavier Burgundy-type reds are better with rare meats and game. Sweet white wines or champagne are traditional with desserts, and reds or port with cheese. Wine bottles should be stored horizontally—to keep the corks from drying out—in a darkened, moderately dry room or cellar, ideally with a constant temperature of about 13° C (about 55° F). Bottles should not be moved unnecessarily or subjected to the effects of heavy vibration, both of which may have deleterious effects on the wine.
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