A Perfect Glass of Wine by Brian St. Pierre and Deborah Jones by Brian St. Pierre and Deborah Jones - Read Online

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A Perfect Glass of Wine - Brian St. Pierre

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There are so many flavors of wine that they may seem infinite. As a practical matter, they might as well be—few of us have the time, even if we had the inclination, to explore this entire universe. Fortunately, however, the really useful band of tastes that runs through the center of this spectrum is easily manageable and delivers enough enjoyment to last a lifetime for most of us. A few dozen grapes provide the flavors for thousands of different wines around the world, and once those keys are understood, the doors are forever open.

One of my teachers once said that wine is a chemical symphony. That’s an apt definition, not least because you can get a lot of enjoyment out of wine without knowing any science, just as you can enjoy a symphony without being able to read music. At its most basic, wine is food—it has calories, vitamins, minerals—but that’s an oversimplification. Wine has historic value, flowing like lifeblood through Western religions, culture, and commerce for several thousand years. Managing the making of it created biochemistry long before there were laboratories. Its medical virtues were known as soon as words were written down. It adds elegance to occasions from picnics to coronations, from everyday meals to banquets. Wine endures, and graciously rewards the attention given to it. We get back more than we put in, and, these days, thanks to higher aesthetic and scientific standards, it’s better than ever.

Grape Expectations

What is wine? No concise definition does it justice. At its simplest, wine is the result of the fermentation of grapes or grape juice. The types of grapes and the various methods of transforming them unfold from there, like a long and fascinating family tree. The branches may not always be straight, but they are remarkably clear—today’s modern technology often just reinforces longstanding tradition.

It’s been estimated that there are more than four thousand varieties of wine grapes, but fewer than a hundred have any really recognizable flavor and character, and only about two dozen of those stand out so definitely that they have become long-standing international favorites. In this book the most popular variations of those hardy perennials are explored in terms of the grape varieties, for many of which the wines are often named. A straightforward system of identifying a wine’s flavor, the use of varietal names (such as Chardonnay or Zinfandel), was popularized by the California wine industry a little more than fifty years ago. Today, this way of identifying wine predominates in several countries, especially the United States, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It’s also now common in parts of France and Italy, and much of Eastern Europe. (Wines that are identified by geographical origin, such as Bordeaux, are discussed under names of the principal grapes used, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.)

The specific flavors of wine aren’t easy to describe in words because there are so few common, general references and it’s as much about sensuality as sense; like love, wine is responsible for a lot of poetry, and quite a bit of sheer silly mush. Jargon and technical terms work well enough among those for whom they’re a professional language. For most people they are an unnecessary and even unwanted burden, with their own limitations. A large part of the enjoyment of wine is hedonistic, subjective, simply a pleasure.

The different grape varieties that I’ll be exploring have, like different sorts of apples or cherries or nuts, well-defined flavors, so the varietal system provides a good beginning; with little experience, anyone can travel this road and go as far as he or she wishes—it’s an open ticket. An understanding of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, for example, is the platform that can launch us into wine from Bordeaux, parts of California, Washington State, Chile, Australia, and other places, and enable us to delight in their variations on the bold theme of that grape. Acquaintance with grape varieties provides the opportunity for an informed choice in terms of flavor; we have no need for geography lessons.

Flavor comes, literally, from the ground up. The old adage says that good wine is made in the vineyard. The best vineyards are in temperate zones, usually on slopes or hillsides, with well-drained soil and a good amount of sun, but not too much. There’s no way to discover these virtues from a label, but the wine itself will usually address the point nicely. New Zealand, for example, is a very cool area for grape growing, and its Sauvignon Blanc can shriek with tartness, like green apples. Sauvignon Blanc from the warmer Napa Valley in California will be milder, much less extreme. With the wine’s source becoming a secondary signpost to potential flavor, making a choice becomes easier after tasting only a few examples. If the particular variety isn’t pleasing, it’s easy to apply the same taste test to another; there are enough different flavors almost to guarantee that there’s a wine for anyone’s preferences.

How Wine Is Made

A grape is one of the most efficient packages ever designed—it contains everything necessary to turn itself into wine. The light dusting of powder on the skin is wild yeast, which gets fermentation started; the skin itself determines the color of the wine, as well as a lot of the aspects of its flavor, and contains tannins, which are astringent compounds found in many fruits that help prevent spoilage from oxygen—the skins of apples and peaches have a similar aspect of tannin, a slightly dried-out, almost papery taste. The pulp is saturated with the juice and contains the sugars that will ferment into alcohol and the acids that keep the wine clean during and after fermentation. The seeds, almost like a back-up unit, also contain tannin and some other acids.

In a sense, all the fancy equipment in modern wineries, all the gleaming stainless-steel tanks and computer panels and high-speed bottling lines in sterile, enclosed rooms, are merely for fine-tuning the wine-making process. A hundred years ago, winemakers threw open the doors and windows of their wineries during certain phases of the moon in early winter, then they drained the wine from the large vats in which it was made into small barrels for aging. This wasn’t magic, whatever they thought; it was the drop in temperature that settled and clarified the wine, making it ready for the next step. Today, winemakers achieve the same effect by chilling the wine in those stainless-steel tanks. A lot of other old traditions have been similarly reinforced by technology.

What hasn’t changed are the general outlines of the craft. Grapes are said to be crushed, although the process really consists of just breaking them up to release the juice, which creates a mash of skins, pulp, seeds, and liquid. White wines, meant to be fairly light and relatively delicate, are drained away from the solids fairly quickly and the juice alone ferments. Rosé wines are made from red grapes and are pink because the juice is allowed to ferment in contact with the skins and pulp for a short time, usually a day or two, before being drained away to finish fermenting.

Red wines are more complicated all the way through the winemaking process. Most of the time, after the grapes are crushed, the juice ferments in contact with the skins for anywhere between four to fourteen days. Fermentation is a violent process and a lot of the pulp breaks down into what are known as soluble solids, the most important of which are tannins, glycerol, and pigments, which give the wine its firm astringency, body, and color, and which link up with a small amount of remaining sugar, some aromatic compounds, the acids, and alcohol to make a dark, robust wine. After that, the juice is drained away from the mash and continues to ferment for a few more weeks. In many cases, the wine may be blended with other varieties later on.

Most white and rosé wines are on sale within a year after they’re made, so they have no need for the preservative action that tannin provides—alcohol and acid do a reasonable job of that, and contribute flavor. (This is also true of Champagne and other sparkling wines.) Whites tend to be straightforward, valued for refreshment, less complex than reds. (Complexity in wine means that every sip tastes slightly different and continually interesting, as if the flavor is in layers.)

Red wines take more time to mature, usually a minimum of two years, and some require many more years after they’re bottled. The tannin leached into the wine from all that time in contact with the skins not only acts as a preservative, but also cleans up the wine over the years by dragging down dead yeast cells and odd carbohydrates left over from fermentation; that’s the sediment often found at the bottom of bottles of old wine. Tannin is astringent and feels as if it’s drying out your mouth. A little bit is bracing, but a lot can be harsh.

Some wines are naturally low in tannin. Pinot Noir is a good example, soft and silky and smooth, easy to drink when young. Cabernet Sauvignon is tannic, partly because the grapes are small, so there is more skin and less pulp, and the skin is thick. The tannin overwhelms the flavor of the grape when the wine is young. Mature Cabernet Sauvignon—ten or more years old—can be a joy, but when it’s immature it can be rough. Keep this in mind when buying a wine for the short term—do you really want a three-year-old Cabernet for next Sunday? Once again, it’s all in the tasting; there are a lot of other reds to drink while waiting for the really hearty ones to mature into something graceful.

Tasting Wine

The business of tasting wine seems ripe for caricature. All professional tasters sniff and swirl, sip and gargle, and then spit—not so silly a performance when you’ve got to try fifty or sixty samples in a morning and make sound commercial decisions, let alone drive a car or be coherent. Professionals also take notes, again for good commercial reasons. For most people who are simply interested in increasing their enjoyment of wine, it is enough to give a wine our full attention for the first few moments we encounter it, and to make mental notes about what we like, eventually building up a store of pleasant memories for reference.

If you wish to go further, here is how professionals do it. In a good light, pour an ounce or so of wine into a wineglass of at least six ounces capacity. Hold the glass up to the light or, even better, against a white surface (even a countertop will do); this is to judge the color and clarity. A white wine that is deeply colored, shading toward brown, may well be past its prime or simply spoiled; sometimes red wines have sediment floating around in them. (Recork such a wine and let it stand for a day—the sediment should fall to the bottom, and the wine will be fine after decanting.) Swirl the wine around to release its aroma (the glass should have curved sides). Poke your nose into the glass and take a deep, short sniff. Your nose is hundreds of times more sensitive than your palate and will tell you a lot about the flavor of the wine— if it’s spoiled or off in some way, this is where you’ll find out. Then sip and, holding the wine in your mouth, slosh it around. (It’s not necessary to gargle or imitate a seal.) This step confirms the other impressions and lets you taste the acidity and tannin, and decide finally whether the wine is balanced and harmonious. It’s actually a fairly quick and simple process.

When we’re presented with a wine in a restaurant, we can adopt a very streamlined version to evaluate the wine discreetly. Some aspects of wine rituals are based on the hazards of previous times. We are presented with the cork after the waiter pulls it to be sure that it’s sound, not rotten or crumbled, and to check that the wine is from the right producer. A hundred years ago, corrupt merchants would put famous labels on bottles of mediocre wine, and so the famous châteaux began stamping their names onto the corks. Some people sniff the cork—the waiter may—because a lot of the faults of spoiled wine are caused by infected corks. If one end of the cork is wet, the wine has been stored properly, on its side. I usually just pick up the cork from the side of my plate where the waiter has put it, touching my fingertip to its wet end. The real test is to come, so why linger?

The waiter pours a bit of wine for the host, or person who has ordered the wine, just a splash. This is the moment that a lot of people dread, forgetting that it’s the wine that’s being judged, not them.