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
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
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.
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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