The concept of wine is new to our country. It’s always been there, but not until recently has it been discovered and explored. It hasn’t yet reached the point where it’s a subconscious part of our routine and culture. But in order for it to get there, we must begin to understand what it is, and what makes it the way it is. That’s where you and I come in.
Any dictionary can tell you that wine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice. This is fundamentally true, but it doesn’t tell you anything useful at all.
Without getting too technical, the grapes used in making wine are a different species from the grapes we are used to eating. And it’s these grapes that are ultimately responsible for the colour of the wine – Red, White, and Pink (also called Rosé) – but not in the way that you think.
Wine grapes are of two colours – black (which is actually red), and white (that look green-ish). One would think that red grapes give red wine, and white grapes give white. But this is not always the case.
Under the skin, the pulp of both grapes is white. That means, if you were to peel the skins off a black grape and a white grape and put them next to each other, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
You can try this at home, even if you have regular table grapes.
This means that the juice extracted by pressing both black and white grapes is the same colour – white. So it’s entirely possible to make a white wine using only black grapes. In fact, it’s quite a common practice.
Red and Pink wines actually get their colour because the skins of the crushed black grapes are kept in contact with the white juice for a certain period of time (usually 2 or 3 days for Pinks and a full week for reds), a process called maceration. This, along with the heat released from partial fermentation, leaches not only colour from the skins, but also vital flavours, most notably the bitter tannins.
After this, the juice is fermented, and goes through a number of processes including clarification and filtration, before it’s finally bottled and distributed to your closest liquor store.
So why is it that wines that are all made the same way taste so drastically different from one another? This is largely because of the “varietal” of the wine grape used. There are many different kinds of wine grapes that have their own unique taste-related characteristics (click here to know what those are), and that only grow well in certain regions.
A wine can be made with juice from a single variety of grapes (also known as a Varietal wine), but some wines are blends, which means that means they have a combination of two or more grape varieties being used in different proportions. Wines are blended after the juices from the different grapes have been fermented and aged separately.
The WineFolly website has a great article on the subject, simply labelled “What is wine?” You can read it here.
Wine grape varieties have a very simple form of distinction – they have names. The most popular white grape in the world is Chardonnay, one of the most popular red grapes in the world is Cabernet Sauvignon. You don’t have to be too worried about remembering the names – once you understand more about wine, the understanding of the grapes comes with it.
And there you have it. You have the wine basics down. You know how they’re made, what exactly they’re made from, and why they’re different from one another. You may not yet be confident enough to debate with your wine shop vendor on the subject, but bear with me. Soon, you’ll be able to.
Next up : We’ll be going time travelling within the next few weeks, covering a brief history of wine, and how it’s changed in all these years – for better and for worse.
From it’s original conception and distribution around the world in 6,000 B.C., to its threat of complete extinction from a mysterious foe in the late 19th Century, wine has come a long, long way.
It’s a fascinating journey, because to study wine is to study the world. Stay tuned. 🙂