I'll wager that I'm one of many who sipped her first wine in a church during a religious ceremony. Whether it's sweet Manischewitz or a watered-down jug variety, wine has long played a critical role in many faith traditions and rituals. That's a fancy way of saying that whether at a First Communion, a Passover seder or even at a Thanksgiving dinner with your folks who aren't wine drinkers themselves, your first experience may not have been that great, honestly, as far as setting up your expectations for tastes and flavors. (In ceremonial wines' defense, obviously flavor isn't the point.)
If that's not enough, let me just say this: Boone's.
Let's assume you're ready to step up your wine game from ordering the second cheapest wine on the list - so hopefully this overview will help. There are volumes of material out there about wine, so I'll mainly reference some pretty familiar grapes and wines while providing some references for deeper diving. Most importantly, we're going to take a look at the environmental impacts and sustainable potential of winemaking. (If you have a cellar going and make regular pilgrimages to your favorite vineyard, you'll find that section below.)
Remember that until quite recently in human history, water wasn't the cleanest beverage - and in fact, could be lethal to drink. Without refrigerators, milk didn't keep well. Enter fermentation, the process by which we made the wine, beer, ale and hard cider people downed to quench their thirst instead.
In this case, we're talking wine, made from fermented juice from grapes. The real first step in winemaking (or vinification) is making 'must'. Must is freshly pressed grape juice; for red wine, that's complete with skins, seeds and stems of the fruit, juice-only is used to make white wine. Yeast is added to the sugary, freshly pressed must and converts the sugar to alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere. After that primary fermentation, the young wine is transferred to oak barrels to undergo bacterial fermentation, which makes it more drinkable later - in some cases, much later.
A word about vocab here: wine tasting has its own lingo that can sound extremely complex and intimidating (ok, some say pretentious). Fortunately, there are plenty of places to start correlating what you taste and smell with references made in the fabulous world of wine.
A Brief History
Wine was an early, essential component to civilization as it developed all over the world. Let's take a quick tour to orient ourselves to how wine became so ubiquitous and prized, woven into national identities and the stuff of international rivalries well into the 21st century.
Fossilized wild grape pips (seeds) have been found at archaeological sites in what are now Greece and France indicating that winemaking was happening 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, respectively. In the Aegean, a Neolithic site called Dikili Tash has pips dating to 4,400-4,000 BC. By medieval times, red and white wines had become the drink of all peoples and social classes in southern Europe, where grapes were cultivated. (In the North and East, less friendly climes to grape growing, beer and ale remained kings.)
We'd barely recognize the herb-y, vinegar-y taste of those wines, much less enjoy the grittiness afforded by the natural additives and spices used for flavoring and medicinal purposes. Since wine is a necessity to celebrate Catholic Mass, monks all over Europe created a thriving industry shipping wine all over the continent, developing recipes and techniques. One of them even inspired the name of a legendary brand of bubbly.
After a pesky 19th century American-born phylloxera louse infestation wreaked havoc on French vineyards, grapevines were plowed under and became prime cattle-grazing lands, thus yielding some of the best, most famous French butter and cheese. Also during this time, winemakers finally settled on the grape mixes still used today to achieve the trademark flavors of Champagne and Bordeaux.
By 2013, France was the third-highest producer of wine in Europe, after Spain and Italy. Thanks to a record-setting 2013 grape harvest, it's anticipated that Spain will continue its market successes. "Old World" domination of the market is waning, however, in light of the tremendous success of North American and southern producers worldwide.
Which leads us to...
European empire building fueled increased wine production and consumption. When Spain's Catholic conquistadors invaded Mexico, they brought grape seeds to plant at missions so that they'd be able to make wine for Communion. But when Mexican wine production boomed and threatened the market supremacy of Spanish vineyards, the king ordered Mexico to stop production. French, Italian and German grapes came to the continent later and once planted in American soil yielded wines with new and different flavors than the same grapes had in Europe.
California wine country saw its first grapes planted in 1839. It took another thirty years for commercial winemaking to get going, but get going it did. Unfortunately, between a grape surplus, phylloxera outbreaks and Prohibition, the industry ground nearly to a halt by the early 1930s. Some vintners continued to produce sacramental wine, but most were wiped out. After World War II, the industry recovered, and as of the Paris Tasting of 1976, in which Napa's finest were judged superior to French samples, California had arrived.
The Southern Market
When the Australian wine industry started (thanks to plants brought by penal colony governors and soldiers) most bottles were exported to the United Kingdom. New Zealand's wine industry largely began and remained local. South African exports were mainly isolated from the global market due to international boycotts of trade during apartheid, but in the 18th century, they were the largest exporters of wine to Europe. At this point, of course, you can find award-winning bottles from all three countries at your local wine shop. Sadly, due to drought and heat, we're likely to see a sharp dropoff in production from these countries in the near future.
- Dionysus is the Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. He's been credited with inspiring, among other things, early Greek theatre. (And a lot of hangovers.)
- Grape phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae) is a pest of commercial vineyards worldwide; the insect originated in Eastern North America and traveled to Europe courtesy of "avid Victorian botanists" in England. In general, American vines remain immune to the bug, so elsewhere, infestations are still dealt with by grafting American rootstock to the vines.
- Until the end of the 17th century, French vintners tried their hardest to get rid of the bubbles in champagne, as they were considered undesirable. That is, until French and British nobility and royals got a taste for the sparkly stuff.
- Some wines are named for grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon), others for regions they're made and blended (Bordeaux) and others more...whimsically (Cupcake; Barefoot; Sting's "When We Dance" chianti).
- California wines became famous after the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, when Chateau Montelena's bottle of 1973 Napa Valley Chardonnay beat out a slew of old-guard French competitors to take the honors for best Chardonnay. Stag Leap's best-tasting Cabernet triumphed during the same event and the Napa Valley became a household name. California's wines were repeat victors at anniversary taste tests, to the French's chagrin.
- "Champagne" is a fiercely guarded, trademarked term. In fact, only wines produced at one of the 300 officially recognized Champagne houses in France are allowed to bear the name on their label. Everything else is champagne-styled or sparkling wine.
Wine is made from grapes grown on every continent (except Antarctica) in most climates and soil types. There are eighteen "noble grapes" which are internationally recognized varietals - and as a grape like Zinfandel or Malbec becomes more common, it may be added to the list. Food & Wine has a great three-part intro to all things wine and Wine Folly is a fantastic resource for answering all manner of questions, complete with lovely infographics and video demos on how to open Champagne!
Wine grapes are harvested in late summer/early fall, into October and even November. That's only the first step in the process of winemaking, though. Wine is fascinating because it is both highly seasonal (its flavors will change from year to year) and yet not (it takes months to make even a young wine, and many are aged prior to retailing; you may continue to age it for years at home).
Before we delve into wine production's impact on the environment, we should mention the environment's impact on wine production. Temperatures in the US have increased an average of one to two degrees since the 1960s; in 2014, grapes began budding a month ahead of schedule in Napa Valley. In the short term, a longer growing season means bigger, jammier, even better wines, so for the moment, global warming is not the biggest challenge for California's wine industry.
Over the next 40 years, temperatures are expected to rise four degrees, which could trigger at least a 50 percent loss in arable land in the Napa Valley suitable for growing grapes. The French are dealing with the same problem; indeed, the wine industry there is already buying up land in southern England to use in a warmer future. In southern Australia, producers are looking to Tasmania and other regions as options. Growers at higher altitudes and closer to the ocean worldwide will likely weather temperature changes, as their microclimates should afford some protection. That said, because of subtle shifts in temperature and wine's flavor being so dependent upon the soil in which grapes are grown, wines may taste different.
So how about winemaking's environmental impact? First, let's talk water.
Researchers at Stanford University (advising the state government on climate change's likely effect on the wine industry) noted that while rising temperatures are the biggest long-term problem, in the near term, winemakers will have to deal with falling precipitation levels and overtaxed groundwater resources, as do all of California's farmers. Wine has a hefty water footprint, with one glass of wine (about a half a cup) requiring about 29 gallons to make (France: almost 24 gallons; Italy: ditto; Spain: 51.5 gallons.)
As to sustainability in the winemaking industry, there are a few overarching issues to consider: water use, pesticides, bottling and transport, land use and the ecosystem of the vineyard and labor.
A word on labeling: "organic" wines are those made without man-made chemical inputs and fertilizers applied to the vines; the terms refer to the grapes grown, not the overall vintner management. "Sustainable" wines are not necessarily made without man-made chemicals, but consider the overall habitat and ecosystem, including labor practices, in management. "Biodynamically-produced" wines are produced following the philosophy of 1920s Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, whose farming approach incorporates an attunement to spiritual or astrological forces in the cosmos. Like organic wines, they also don't incorporate man-made chemicals into production.
If you spot roses growing in vineyards, you're spotting the canaries in coalmines with regard to fungal infections or pests; vintners spray according to whether or not roses get sick. Some vintners grow mustard flowers or radishes amidst the vines, as the glucosinolates in the spicy plants are powerful pesticides. Falcons eat at least a small bird or two a day, helping to manage predators in the field.
In March 2014, a French winemaker was imprisoned for refusing to use pesticides on his field in the Côte d'Or region of the country; the government mandated their use as a measure in a decades-old battle against a bacterial infection. Whether in Long Island, California, Chile or New Zealand, a burgeoning movement of winemakers worldwide is keen on a more sustainable approach. (For a good overview, see this series in Forbes by Katie Kelly Bell).
Here's an interesting look at a sustainable winery in the Marlborough region of New Zealand which uses land management, LEED buildings, solar panels and heat recovery technology and recycled packaging materials.
Speaking of packaging: the biggest environmental culprit in winemaking, arguably, has to do with the bottles, because of their weight. A life cycle inventory study commissioned by Tetra Pak (so, conflict of interest?) in 2007 found that delivering 1,000 liters of wine in Tetra Paks (think juice boxes) used less energy and produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than did plastic bottles or traditional glass bottles. That said, glass bottles are recycled more often than are plastic (though not as much as beer bottles). Moreover, there's not as much of a market for green glass, and they're seldom included in "bottle bills" that pay consumers for bottles sold to recycling centers. (In California, the recycle rate for those bottles? 84 percent.)
The biggest asterisk of all, in the interest of full disclosure: at least for now, nothing except a glass bottles yields an age-able wine. Boxed wines do fine for 6-8 months (for whites) and 10-13 months (of reds) but aren't going to hold up in a cellar or for any length of time.
The Delano Grape strike of the 1960s and 70s were about table grapes (that we eat out of hand) but suffice it to say that they are grown under the same conditions; i.e.; it takes substantial heat to grow any kind of grapes. The 2008 heat-related deaths of two 17 year old farmworkers, who were pruning grapevines for West Coast Grape Farming, a company of which Fred Franzia of Two Buck Chuck fame, is a part owner.
Their deaths sparked marches and calls for better working conditions, including access to shade and water during heat waves. A number of fair trade certifications have sprung up in recent years.
Here are some of the wines you may know that are readily available at wine shops - even grocery or convenience stores - near you. Remember that some wines are named according to the grapes used to make them (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon) and others for the regions where different grape varieties are blended (e.g., Burgundy, Bordeaux).
For a full and proper tour of the "noble grapes" I dash through here, check out Wine Folly's easy and graphically helpful guide!
- French. Called "the King" of the grapes, it was the most widely planted premium red grape around the world until the 1990s, thanks to its ease of cultivation in many climates. The grapes are thick-skinned, grown on hardy, low yielding, late-budding vines and yield a remarkably consistent-tasting wine. Cabs are aged in oak barrels.
- French. The smooth drinking, medium-bodied and pretty plum-colored wine comes to us courtesy of the dark-blue grape that's still the most-planted in Bordeaux. It's possibly a descendant of Cabernet Franc, the third grape featured in Bordeaux wines. Despite a character's constant dissing in an Oscar-winning screenplay, plenty of us do like Merlot; its popularity boomed in the last twenty years in particular. (Remember Sideways' most famous scene?)
Syrah (aka Shiraz)
- Another French grape (not to be confused with Petite Sirah!) Syrah/Shiraz is extremely popular Down Under, where it is the most-grown dark-skinned grape and has been a star since the 1860s. Back in France, Syrah originally became famous thanks to the Hermitage wines of its home region, favorites of the well heeled in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Italian (though its actual origin is Croatian, according to DNA testing!) A black-skinned grape now popular in California, which usually used to produce red wine. You may know this grape best from early forays into wine drinking (college, cough) as it's used to make white zinfandel. The grapes' red skins are removed quickly after the crushing so that they don't have a chance to pigment the wine, thus yielding a rosy-hued, somewhat sweet pour with a relatively low alcohol content.
- French. America's most popular wine (white or red) and most-planted grape around the world. Its flavor is distinct based in part on where the grapes are grown - so California, France's Burgundy region and Australian Chardonnays taste a bit different, from dry to medium-dry (so, the opposite of White Zinfandel). Further, the style in which the wine is made affects its taste and finish (so, fermentation time and any oak-aging). A prolific grape that can produce affordable, drinkable everyday wines, it's little wonder that Chardonnay is so ubiquitous.
- French. This green-skinned grape produces the other most popular varietal in the US. While grown throughout France, Sauvignon Blanc has come to more recent fame from New Zealand, California and Chilean winemakers. Thanks to the sandiness or stoniness of soils found in their vineyards, producers in New Zealand make a lot of on-the-ground decisions as to harvest time that makes for quite unique-tasting wines. (Sometimes, they'll harvest in stages and mix the grapes from each interval.)
Again, in the interest of brevity, we'll just direct you to a few resources where you can dive deeper to discover wines made from blends of different grapes. It's certainly another instance where the creativity and art of winemaking are readily apparent; their complexity is fascinating and this group includes some of the world's most prized and expensive bottles!
- Like Paris, the Bordeaux region of France has a Left Bank and a Right Bank. Left Bank producers tend to be the big estates - think Château Latour - and make Cabernet-heavy wines. On the Right Bank, smaller producers make blends that tend to feature more Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
- Burgundy is where things get even more interesting and complicated; this is a region of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Chablis in the north, with its "zesty" white wines, and Côte de Nuits is in the south, with its rich Pinot-based wines. To find out more, check out this great tutorial!
- French. So how did we get bubbly wine? Way back when, Northeastern French winemakers found that cold winter temperatures stopped the fermentation process of young wines, and dormant yeast cells would reawaken each spring as temperatures warmed, restarting the process. Fermentation yields carbon dioxide gas, pressure builds in each bottle, and that's how you end up with that satisfying "pop!" of the cork. Modern methods for producing delicious, festive bottles of Champagne and sparkling wine are variations on that basic process.
- Chianti is produced in central Tuscany and is sometimes called the Bordeaux of Italy. Once upon a time, it was made with a blend including green grapes. After a postwar production boom, in the 1970s Tuscan winemakers sought to reclaim Chianti's reputation and snuck around legal restrictions, developing "Super Tuscan" wines whose blends drifted redder and redder. And even a little French. In the wake of this intrigue, some Super Tuscans were reclaimed as legally sanctioned Chiantis. It's also an infamous companion to a dinner of liver and fava beans. (Go ahead, we'll wait...)
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Thanks to great publicity and the "French Paradox", the legend wherein the hard-drinking, happily-eating French maintain lower levels of obesity and disease, in recent years millions of Americans took to drinking Merlot, the velvety wine which was easy to pronounce, easier to drink and easy on the wallet (at least sometimes). But wine's health benefits when consumed in moderation, especially red wines, are a hotly debated matter among health care practitioners. The Mayo Clinic says that antioxidants in red wine, called polyphenols, may help protect your heart's blood vessels; one in particular, resveratrol, may protect against obesity and diabetes, but the research cited had only been done on animals (rodents and pigs).
Johns Hopkins University researchers, looking at a set of older adults in Italy, didn't find those benefits were due to resveratrol; bioflavonoids, on the other hand, which help reduce inflammation and blood clots, could be the handy helpers in our red.
The Yale-New Haven hospital, among numerous other publications and lifestyle sites, suggests that men drink one or two and women one serving of red per day to reap the most boosts while emphasizing a low/moderate consumption message - no binging! Researchers at the University of California-Davis have found "flavonoid favorites" like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah or Pinot Noirs have more of the antioxidant than do Merlot or any white wines.
What to Do With it and Cooking
What kind of wine goes well with what kind of food? Simple answer: whites with poultry or fish, reds with red meat, some bubbly when you're celebrating! Overall, when it comes to wine it helps to know if you're looking to complement your food or enjoy that special bottle with some friends - so you'll know what to avoid, if nothing else!
When it comes to cooking, another simple nugget: don't cook with one you couldn't drink. Period. Note I said "couldn't" - no need to use the really, really good stuff, unless it's going to be the star of your recipe, such as in Coq au Vin (my favorite version is courtesy of Ms. Julia Child). Some other meat-y classics: Marcella Hazan's Bolognese sauce or steak with red wine sauce. Fish-y options: mussels with white wine sauce (aka "beurre blanc") or a springy scallops and asparagus dish with white wine sauce.
Vegetarian and vegan options: I've made a version of this pasta with Provencal wine sauce for years - it's a quick, tasty favorite. Red-wine braised cabbage and onions hit the comfort food spot (especially paired with pierogis). Ditto pasta with tomato-mushroom sauce or garlic-butter-white wine pasta. As for dessert, think fruit poached in wine with some spices. (See below.)
This winter, whether to fend off the effects of a polar vortex or to make merry with friends for the holidays, don't forget to indulge in some mulled wine. Bonus: your house will smell spectacular afterwards. I like Jamie Oliver's take on this, just convert grams to cups for sugar and you're all set!
My best advice when choosing a wine: talk to your friendly local wine shop manager or sommelier if you're out to dine! They're in the happy business of matching people and wines up, so no matter - perhaps, especially - if you're on a budget sally up and ask. My local wine shop - as do many - features a wonderful section of budget buys (think $15 and less) that are our favorite dinner wines. Price alone doesn't tell any wine's whole story.
Here are the basics of wine storage for most of us: Not too hot, not too cold and not in the sun. (If you're developing a serious collecting habit, it may be time to investigate more precise guidelines.)
Red Wine-Poached Pears
A light dessert or salad accompaniment, pears poached in red wine are elegant and easy to make - what an unbeatable combination! You can experiment with different spicing on this - some recipes call for adding everything from apple cider to orange peels. Try this classic version, courtesy of my well-worn Gourmet Cookbook (2004 edition).
1 1⁄2 cups dry red wine
1⁄3 cup sugar
1 (2 inch piece) cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
4 firm but ripe Bosc or Anjou pears (2 pounds total), peeled, halved and cored
- Combine wine, sugar cinnamon stick and cloves in 4- to 5-quart heavy pot and bring to a boil.
- Add pears and gently simmer over moderately low heat, turning and basting pears occasionally, until they are just fork tender, 15-25 minutes. (Note: the timing on this will depend on how ripe your pears are - you don't want to overcook them.)
- With a slotted spoon, transfer pears to paper towels to drain and discard spices.
- Boil remaining poaching liquid until syrupy and reduced to about a half-cup, about 10 minutes.
- For dessert: serve pears with a drizzle of syrup and vanilla ice cream, custard or a dollop of marscapone cheese.
- For a salad: slice pears and arrange with blue cheese or goat cheese, walnuts or pecans on a bed of baby spinach or arugula lettuce.
This post was originally published in October 2014.