Vintage: the history of wine production (part 3)

Have you ever wondered what makes a pinot gris different from a pinot noir (which does not mean “black penis” as the jokester at your table might claim)? Thus far we have examined early wine making, which featured cultured grapes and Greek wine making, which introduced the modern version of the press. In part three of “Vintage,” we explore the development of modern winemaking.

Mixing grapes, fermenting the juice, storing, clarifying, and drying the wine, and finally distributing bottles all over the world that can be stored for decades are all intricate processes by themselves, and the modern viticulturist relies on a lifetime of education and experience. In this article, only a few brief aspects will be considered.

First, the process of growing grapes has grown tremendously. What began as “tribal knowledge” became a subject scientific analysis. Aside from developing new grapes (virtually all varietals of which descended from those of the vitis vinifera), scientists have even discovered that many of our popular grapes, such as zinfandel and carmenere  are twins of famous European grapes. Viticulturists are now able to measure the pH (and therefore level of tartaric acid), sugar content, and other factors to determine whether the grapes are ripe or not. Many vineyards even harvest only during certain times of day or night in order to make sure the right amount of sugar is present in the fruit.

All of those parts of the grape are pressed out either on tables or a “bucket.” In the first method, also used in Ancient Greece and Israel, grapes were put on a flat hard surface, and another platen is lowered until a specific pressure is reached. In the latter, juice from grapes stacked in a cylinder is squeezed out by a flat press. In white wines, the juice is taken for fermentation. In a red wine, the winemaker combines the skins with the juice in order to provide color and tannin. Wines are then stored in stainless steel, oak, or other types of vats. This process allows sediment to fall out and (in the case of wood aging) for the wine to dry out and take on certain tastes and aromas of the material it is stored in.

One of the most important changes in the winemaking industry was not a scientific development, but a response to a natural—sort of—problem: Phylloxera. This pest all but obliterated the European wine industry in the late 1800s.  These ugly aphids came to Europe from America and managed to decimate the vast majority of vineyards there. As Europe recovered from the plague, new developments in hybridization led to more resistant grapes and, thankfully, excellent wines. Grapes such as the Pinot were quite desirable for their mutability, and the decline of old stereotypes led to new hybrids, new blends, and even new locations. Vines were often uprooted and taken to new homes in order to preserve them. The newly popular Carmenere is a direct descendent of a Bordeaux grape, and immigrants to the American west coast adapted old world grapes to the new world.

More vibrant, fruity wines aged in young oak have risen in popularity in the last two decades, and the much deeper, mellower wines aged in old-oak may soon disappear from the shelves. When we consider the fact that wine production has evolved for millennia, it is surprising to see how subtly the methods and taste profiles of the beverages have changed. While certain qualities may be shifting right now, it seems likely that wine made today will have a lot in common with wine that will be made 100 years from now.


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AJ Wine Series: Girard Sauvignon Blanc

I’m back with another white wine to add to the Average Joe wine list. As Eric mentioned in an earlier post, looking to Australia and South America is a great place to go bargain hunting. Similarly, white wine prices generally are lower than those of red wines, so you should be able to find a decent bottle in your budget.

This includes Napa’s Girard Winery. At the winery, you will find premier Cabernet Sauvignon wines that sell for up to $75 a bottle. Yet their 2010 Sauvignon Blanc can be found at stores like Costco for $11.89 a bottle.  While Girard has been around for several decades, its management shifted about 10 years ago, which has helped Girard branch out into varietals like petite sirah and zinfandel.

I found their 2010 Sauvignon Blanc to be a mild, versatile wine. There were subtle notes of citrus and guava, but it was not overpowering or even bold. I drank some of the bottle the day I opened it, and the rest the next day. I admittedly do not have much experience with saving an open bottle for a day, but the quality on day two equaled day one.

This bottle is getting a three-glass rating, because I did not find anything particularly distinct or memorable about this wine.  I enjoyed it, but I am not sure I would select it ahead of some wines reviewed on this site, which fall in a similar price-range.

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AJ Wine Series: Prosecco!

Prosecco is the sparking wine of Italy! I mentioned in my last post that while we have been reviewing wines for the AJ Wine Series, we have mostly reviewed wines from other countries, especially those that are gaining notoriety, but already have good wines. Unlike the other countries whose wines we have reviewed, Italy has a tremendous reputation. Prosecco, though, has developed as a quality wine more recently than most Italian. Made from Glera grapes, it used to be very sweet until the 1960s, when it began to be produced very dry. It wasn’t introduced into the United States market until 2000, but its market has grown rapidly. A benefit of that is the lower cost than its prestigious Champagne counterpart. Similar to many wines by name in Europe (Port, Champagne, Barolo), Prosecco has its own designation of origin protection (DOC).

Since fellow Winestrong author (The Scholar) loves Prosecco, I have had the opportunity to try many in the last 5 years and have grown to greatly appreciate it. The Zonin Prosecco (NV) was one that I had not tried and I picked up during the Safeway/Vons super sale for $7. The color of the wine was light gold and it was filled with medium sized bubbles. The flavor was dry and crisp filled with green apple and tropical fruit, a fairly standard flavor profile for Prosecco. Since I have recently come to enjoy the marriage between chardonnay and pasta with a pesto sauce, I thought this Prosecco would also match well since it has similar flavor to Champagne which is made with Chardonnay grapes. Success! I was right! I thoroughly enjoyed the pairing and it even went well with some pineapple that we had on the side. In the United States, we tend to drink sparkling wines alone or as an aperitif, but in Italy, Prosecco is enjoyed with all parts of the meal. Not only do I strongly recommend you try this particular Prosecco, but I suggest you have it with a meal you would normally pair a chardonnay with (think flaky fish, shellfish or creamy pastas). I give this wine an AJ rating of 5 glasses!

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