Wine – a monosyllabic word that evokes different meanings for anyone who enjoys it. Feelings of warmth, passion, companionship, appreciation and fun are likely the most common. Instant images of the varietals, vineyards and distant regions are likely to occur. Even thoughts of the history, key figures and legendary bottles may come to mind just by taking one sip. This is the amazing thing about wine; it has the power to transport us almost anywhere. But wine in itself is simpler than everything just mentioned. It’s merely spoiled grape juice.
Ok, that may be oversimplifying things a bit. Understanding what wine is and how it’s created is as important as knowing any of the talking points that you may hear wine connoisseurs spout off at a fine restaurant or wine shop.
At its core, wine is grape juice that has been introduced to yeast and has gone through fermentation (the process of converting sugar to alcohol). At this point you officially have wine and this unrefined version is exactly what hooked mankind on the drink nearly 7,000-8,000 years ago!
Since those days, winemakers have added a few additional steps to alter the overall quality, appearance and stability. Each of these processes demand a bit of explaining, however for the purpose of this article it’s only necessary to understand that they take place and a basic description of what they are. The four main developments since those archaic days are:
Glass Bottles: Up until approximately 400 years ago wine became vinegar all too quickly. This was due to wine being stored in porous vessels, most typically wood barrels or poorly sealed containers that allowed large amounts of oxygen to attack the wine. The advent of glass bottles with cork closures allowed for protection against rapid oxidation of wine.
Filtration/fining: The controversial process of removing suspended remnants of the winemaking process such as dead yeast and grape skin particles. Many winemakers avoid this at all costs, as they believe it removes the character of the wine.
Cold Temperature Stabilization: This is the process of removing tartrate crystals from a wine by exposing it to near freezing temperatures. If this isn’t done, these crystals may form in the bottle. They are completely harmless to the wine, but most novice drinkers don’t know that and get turned-off by them. This is why mass-produced wines typically go through this process.
Malolactic Fermentation: A style of fermenting that converts malic acid, characterized by sharper/zestier sensation (think of how your mouth feels when you first bite into a green apple), and converts it either partially or fully into lactic acid. Lactic acid, the same acid found in milk, imparts smoother and softer qualities to wines. Most reds go through this process, as do some whites, most notably chardonnay.
Even with these innovations in winemaking, the fact remains that wine is still wine. If you were to go visit most of the world’s top producers, you would find that they make wine the way it was likely made thousands of years ago. They use different practices in the vineyard, use yeast that is cultured in a laboratory, or rack their wines numerous times prior to bottling. But it all starts the same way: grapes + yeast = wine. That’s what makes wine so special; with every glass you drink a bit of history.