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Wine Basics - Excerpt from The Bartending College Bartender's Training Manual
Almost every European nation has a saying equivalent to, “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.” Wine has been one of man’s favorite beverages, and it is probable that the beverage is older than mankind itself. For the first wild grape, ripening and basking in the sun’s warmth and in unison with airborne yeast, turned into wine without man’s help.
Nature’s whim, aided by man’s skill developed thorough centuries of time, are responsible for today’s vast variety of grapes. These grapes, pressed separately or in combination, may make different wines. Grapes grown in different soils add other variations; grown in varying climates bring still added types; while the sunshine and rains of different years further complicate the array.
The word “wine” goes back to the Latin, vinum (wine). The ancient Romans and Greeks, of course, were enthusiastic wine-drinkers. There have been some word specialists who trace the word vinum and vita (Latin for “life”) back to the same word. But, even if the words are not related, wine and life truly are inseparable.
Many wine types are taken from the district in which the wine is grown. For example, “Sherry” is an English pronunciation of Jerez, Spanish hone of Sherry. “Port” is taken for the city of Oporto, Portugal. “Bordeaux,” “Burgundy” and “Champagne” are all wine districts in France. Other wine names are taken from the type of grape used to produce the wine, such as Riesling, Barbara and Pinot Chardonnay.
The major wine-growing nations are France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, former Yugoslavia, Algeria, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia and the US.
With all wines, the foundation for quality is laid in the vineyard. Care of the vines, care in picking, and care in selecting only such grapes that have reached just the right balance of maturity, are all important in the making of good wine. Wine is a natural product, and it comes a long way on the vine itself. As the sun ripens the grape, natural grape sugar is created. As in the case with most table wines, the grapes are picked when the natural sugar content has reached 22 percent by weight. For dessert wines, the grapes are picked when their sugar content has reached 24 percent.
Fermentation continues a process that began with the natural ripening of the grape on the vine. On the vine, sunlight turned the fruit acid of the grape to grape sugar; fermentation turns the natural grape sugar (or part of it) into alcohol, thus giving the finished wine its natural alcoholic content.
Very few people have successfully memorized the names of even the world’s great wine types, to say nothing of the countless variety that surrounds each type. Learning the most important and popular wine types is not difficult if you first organize them under the five broad divisions, based primarily on use. These five divisions are:
Under these five general headings, 15 wines stand out as the most popular on the American market. Their names, characteristics and uses should be the common knowledge of anyone connected with the sale of wines. Sixty other names, in addition to these 15, are listed by the Wine Institute as being frequently applied to wine in the United States.
Dessert wines, as the name suggests, are sweet. In addition to their sweetness, they differ from table wines by being full-bodied rather than delicate; by having a higher alcoholic content, usually 20 percent; and by their color which ranges from pale gold to red.
The difference between dessert wines and table wines actually begins on the vine where the grapes for dessert wines are allowed to ripen longer until a fuller sugar content is reached.
In California, Port Wine is usually made from Zinfandel and Carignane grapes; in New York and Ohio, Concords, Isabella, Ives and Norton grapes are used. In Portugal, the original home of Port Wine, various native grapes are blended, some to give character, some to give color. As a rule, the Port Wines from Portugal are more brown in color, with the Tawny Ports having a pronounced cast. The Ports of New York, Ohio and California are blended to a deep red in color.
Muscatel is one of the most popular white dessert wines. It has the distinct flavor, aroma, and sweetness of the Muscal grapes from which it is crushed. Muscatel should not be confused with Light Muscatel, a white table wine made from the same grapes as Muscatel but totally different in character. Muscatel is somewhat lighter bodied than Port and is normally served chilled with dessert.
Tokay is another popular dessert wine. It is light amber in color, sweet and somewhat nutty in flavor. As a rule, the Tokays of this country are made by blending Angelica, Port and Sherry wines. The original home of Tokay is in Hungary; near the city of Budapest. The Tokays of Hungary are somewhat heavier and sweeter than the American variety and are fermented from naturally ripened grapes to which portions of overripe grapes are added during the fermentation process.
The best known sparkling wines are Champagne, Sparkling Burgundy, Cold Duck, and Sparkling Rose’ or Pink Champagne. Each is made in a similar manner.
For Sparkling Burgundy, a good Burgundy wine is the starting point; for Sparkling Rose’, a Rose’ wine is the base.
For Champagne, a choice blend of white table wines marks the beginning. These white table wines are aged for several months, then small amounts of sugar and Champagne yeast are added, and the wine is promptly bottled and corked, with the cork clamped down.
The bottles are then laid away, and a second fermentation takes place in the sealed bottle. But in the bottle, the bubbles cannot escape as they do from the top of a vat and, as a result, they actually dissolve in it. The formation of these bubbles, nothing more than carbonic gas, create a terrific pressure within the bottle and necessitates the use of heavy containers and reinforced closures.
It is the usual practice after fermentation is complete, to stack these bottles on their side. After several months of aging, the bottles are placed in racks in such a manner that their corks point downward. The bottles remain in this position for some months and, with time, the natural sediment of the wine slowly settles in the neck of the bottle, hurried somewhat by an attendant who daily turns each bottle.
When the Champagne has fully matured, the next problem is to get the sediment out of the neck of the bottle. This process, called disgorging is commonly done by putting the neck of the bottle in a cold salt solution and freezing the sediment. With the sediment frozen, the cork is released, and the pressure within the bottle pushes out the cork and the sediment.
Sherry has its own distinct flavor, usually described as “nutty.” In color, it runs from pale to dark amber and its sweetness varies from totally dry to medium sweet. As in the making of Port, the sweetness is controlled by the addition of brandy to the fermenting wine.
Sherry gets its distinct characteristics by the manner in which it is aged. Practice varies, but the rule is to age it at a temperature ranging from 100 to 140 degrees. This may be done in heated cellars, or by means of heating coils in the aging tanks. Frequently, this is accomplished by merely storing the Sherry in small barrels and leaving them exposed to the rays of the summer sun. This baking process acts on the grape sugar and gives the Sherry its distinct flavor. After about three months of baking, the Sherry is cooled and left to age.
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