In the previous installment, we explained a small part of the rich history of wine. You can read it here.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not difficult to enjoy wine. It’s not necessarily an acquired taste, it just requires a little trial and error, in order to find one that suits your taste. The pleasantly strange part being, people still find a way to enjoy wines that they don’t like. Allow me to clarify.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of red wines, because they have a lot of bitter tannins. But I would still jump at the opportunity to taste one. And there’s a very simple reason for it – because the enjoyment of wine doesn’t come from taste, it comes from appreciation.
There’s only one way to truly appreciate what’s inside your glass, and that’s by knowing how it got there. Now, that’s probably not the best idea when you think of your colas – most would agree that ignorance is bliss, on that front. But wine is a beautiful, beautiful beverage, and it only improves, the more you learn about it.
The taste of your wine has a lot to do with how and where it was produced. The process affects not only the taste, but also the colour, the texture, and the overall quality of the wine that you drink. Bear with me here – it may seem unimportant, but a little backstory can transform an unassuming glass of wine into something truly amazing.
It begins, of course, with the harvest. As a general rule of thumb, wine grapes outside India are harvested in September, while ours are harvested around February. The interesting part is, almost all our grapes are picked by hand, in comparison to other countries, where only the grapes that go into the making the highest quality wine are handpicked. The rest are harvested by machine.
Hand picking has obvious advantages – the bulging, soft fruit doesn’t get bruised, the bitter seeds remain intact, the impurities are minimal, quality grading is miles easier, and there’s less chance of unwanted material going into the production house. This is especially important, because sticks, twigs and shoots generally have an adverse effect on the juice, making it very bitter.
Step two is a light crushing. Grapes are harvested by the ton. This obviously means that the grapes at the bottom of the pile are going to be a little squashed, and they will spill their precious loot. This juice, extracted from the natural weight of the grapes upon themselves, is of extremely high quality, and is known as “free-run wine”. The rest of the grapes are gently crushed, just to tear them open and extract a little clear juice.
If the grapes are red, the skins are allowed to stay in contact with the juice. The natural yeasts on the skins of the grapes cause it to ferment a little, and the heat from the reaction causes the juice to absorb colour from the skins, making it red (or pink, depending on the duration). Red skins also impart tannins, and flavours which later develop into red and black fruit, like cherries, strawberries, and blackcurrant. This absorption period is known as maceration.
An old practice, still very much in use, is foot-treading. The grapes are crushed by volunteers, who jump into individual baskets, or large tubs, and proceed to squash the grapes with their (clean) feet. This was long considered to be a social activity, where people used to go to vineyards just to foot-tread grapes with their best buddies.
White grapes are usually not macerated, as even a slight discoloration in the skins badly affects the colour of the final product. This is not as evident in black grapes.
Step three is the full-scale pressing. The grapes are pressed in bulk, using any one of many techniques. However, care is taken not to crush the seeds in the grapes, as they release an unpleasant, bitter taste. Pressing methods can vary in scale and intensity.
One of the most efficient and gentle ways of pressing is using a hydraulic press, a machine with perforated walls, and an inflatable bladder in the centre. As the bladder expands with air, it presses the grapes against the walls, releasing the juice, separating the skins, and sparing the seeds.
Grapes can be pressed for usable returns up to two times. First press juice is greatest in quantity, and is generally of good quality. The second press, while not as high in quality, provides decent volume, and is good for blending. The third press juice, however, due its inferior quality and bitterness from crushed seeds, cannot be used to make wine. However, it is perfect for making vinegar, and the distilled grape-based spirit, brandy.
Step four is the main event – fermentation. Vineyards use a specific strain of yeast to ferment their wines. They may also choose to add the controversial sulphides at this point, which neutralise the natural, unpredictable yeasts in the grapes, allowing for a more controlled and consistent product.
Fun fact : “Organic wines” in addition to abstaining from chemical fertilisers and the like, specifically mention that they do not use sulphides in their wines.
Fermentation is responsible for the development of a lot of the flavours and aromas in the wine. It is also what produces the alcohol, as the yeasts feed on the natural sugar in the grape juice.
The measure of a wine’s sweetness comes from how much of the sugar is allowed to be converted into alcohol by the yeasts. If all the sugar is consumed, the total alcohol percentage will be higher, and the wine will be “dry”, i.e. not at all sweet. The retained, or residual sugar determines the sweetness. Thus, sweeter wines tend to have a lower alcohol percentage, and vice versa.
One notable exception of course, is Port wine, which is quite sweet, and can reach up to 22% alcohol by volume. This is because Port is actually a fortified wine, where the alcohol percentage is externally increased. The story as to how that came about is fascinating, and I shall do it due justice in another post.
A lot of things happen in step five. I’ll try not to get too much into the science of it, but it mostly involves converting the harsher acids in the wine, to more pleasant ones (malic acid to lactic acid – the latter responsible for smoother and creamier textures), getting rid of yeast sediments, sulphides, and any other impurities, and clarifying the wine, making it clear. The last one is done through a process known as racking and fining – some common clarifying agents being gelatin, casein, and egg albumen, and one traditionally made from fish bladders, isinglass.
An optional step six is ageing. Refer to this post for an overview which wines can and cannot age. By definition, all wines are aged due to the clarification process taking several months, but a special few, depending on the quality of the harvest and the pressing, are aged even more – often for several years.
Large capacity stainless steel tanks continue to gain popularity, but oak barrels remain a big favourite for aging, as they not only impart a beautiful vanilla flavour, but also naturally regulate tannins in red wines. If you see the word “Reserve” on a bottle, it means that it’s been barrel aged by the vineyard before bottling. They also taste a lot more complete than their non-aged counterparts.
This only covers how still wines are made. Sparkling wines take quite a different route, and we will discuss that, as well as the king of sparkling wines, Champagne, very soon.
So there you have it. You now know exactly how the wine you’re drinking travelled from the grapevine to your glass. Each step is a personal process, requiring a lot of love, attention and effort from every person at the vineyard. Winemaking has always been a profession of love, and once you begin to understand that, the taste actually becomes secondary.
Each wine has a story to tell. So it doesn’t matter if the taste isn’t right for you – just listen as it whispers in your mouth, and you’re bound to find something a lot more satisfying than just good taste.
See you all next week.