An interest in wine

If you find yourself scribing a quick note about a wine you particularly liked, reading labels, checking vintages, and pondering which years were good for grapes in a particular place, it is sure you have developed an interest in wine. You are not alone.

Wine, ancient art, modern science, and global business

In one form or another wine production has been carried out for thousands of years. Pottery discovered in Persia (present-day Iran), dated at 5,500 BC show evidence of grape use for winemaking. Jars from Jiahu in China containing wine from wild grapes date to between 6000 and 7000 BC.

But whether ancient or modern, many of the same conditions are required and similar techniques used. The chemistry of grapes is eternal.

Wine grapes grow, with few exceptions, only in bands delineated by latitudes 30-50 degrees North and 30-45 degrees South of the equator. Unlike most crops, grapes don't require fertile soil. The thinness of the soil restricts the quantity of the crop, producing fewer grapes of higher quality.

Paradoxically, soils too rich in nitrogen and other nutrients —highly beneficial for most plants— can produce grapes unsuitable for winemaking. Fine for eating, but lacking desirable quantities of minerals, sugars and acids.

The best wines are produced from soil that would be considered poor quality for other agricultural purposes. The stellar wines from Bordeaux are made from grapes grown in gravelly soil, atop a base of clay or chalk. Fewer grapes are grown, but high in quality. The pebbly earth allows for good drainage — grapevines require access to adequate, but not excessive, water. As the roots reach down further, more complex minerals are absorbed.

Vineyards are most often founded in river valleys, with slopes that provide abundant sunshine. Vines there are most often of the European species vitis vinifera, from which many common wines are made, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Viticulture, the practice of growing grapes for wine, is today one of the most complex agricultural undertakings. A master vintner (today, sometimes called an oenologist), must be an expert in soil chemistry and fermentation, climatology and several other ancient arts and modern sciences.

In addition to categorization by variety, the products of these vines are classified by vinification methods - sparkling, still, fortified, rosé, blush — or by region — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace — and of course by vintage, as well as a dozen other methods.

After the farmer, chemist and manufacturer have had their say, the businessman must take over. In 2002, 595 million gallons of wine were sold in the U.S. alone, representing over $20 billion in consumer spending. France led the pack with 22% of export volume, with Italy a close 20% behind.

The bold artists of wine must possess a sensitive nose and palate and balance dozens of time-sensitive factors such as when to harvest, how long to ferment and age, when to bottle. And that's before considering modern manufacturing and marketing requirements, not to mention legal restrictions.

An art, a science and a business definitely not for the timid.

Wine, storing before pouring

Wine, like anything else, will always change over time. The trick is to control the rate and types to produce desirable changes and avoid harmful ones. The variables needing to be controlled are air, temperature, light, vibration and humidity.

Nothing spoils good wine faster than too much air — it causes wine to age rapidly, oxidizing and losing freshness. Before long you have vinegar. Fortunately it's not necessary to build a vacuum chamber, glass is impermeable to air for centuries and a good cork will keep air exchange to a minimum for years.

Still, there's some air in the bottle to begin with — this is good, since it's essential to a proper aging process — and corks can go bad. Keeping wine bottles stored horizontally helps keep corks moist, preventing cracking or shrinking that admits air.

Storing wine at around 70 percent humidity is important to keep corks properly moistened — too low humidity dries them out, but higher humidity encourages growth of mold and mildew which injures racks, casks and spoils cork tops.

Even more importantly, proper temperature keeps corks from shrinking when too cold and wine from aging too quickly when too warm. In a cellar of 25 percent whites, 75 percent reds, 45-55F (7C-13C) is preferred. Some areas are blessed with natural conditions in this range, but most will need some kind of refrigeration unit. For smaller collections, wine cabinets can be purchased.

Almost as important as the actual temperature is the rate of change. A ten degree change over a season is harmless, but frequent and rapid changes can severely damage wine, even when stored within the desired range.

Not surprisingly, the higher the storage temperature the faster a wine will age. Conversely, colder storage temperatures slow the aging process. Adjust for the type of wine stored.

Along with controlling temperature and humidity, light exposure should be kept to a minimum. Though modern bottles have good UV filters, some can still penetrate — leading to a condition called 'light struck', which shows up as an unpleasant aroma. Incandescent bulbs produce less ultra violet light than fluorescents, so the former are preferable.

Vibration interferes with aging, stirs up sediments and in extreme cases can cause racks to deteriorate faster. Try to avoid moving bottles until ready to be served.

Bottle size plays a small part, since a larger bottle has a smaller ratio of air to wine. Purchase or use larger bottles when possible. Once a bottle has been opened transfer the leftover wine to a smaller bottle if the remainder isn't consumed within a few days.

Wine Aging Table

The following contains some types of wine and the approximate period they should be aged for optimal flavor. In general, more expensive wines are designed to be aged longer. Cheap wines should be driven off the market by not being purchased at all.

Type
Cost
Age (from vintage date)
Cabernet Sauvignon medium ($12-$25)
expensive ( > $25)
5-6 years
7-15 years
Merlot medium ($12-$25)
expensive ( > $25)
3-4 years
5-12 years
Syrah/Shiraz medium ($12-$25) 3-5 years
Chardonnay medium ($12-$25) Consume within 5 years
California Riesling medium ($12-$25) Consume within 3-4 years
(estimated cost not up to date)