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.