A little bit of history
“The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” So wrote the Greek historian Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. and indeed, wine-making is as old as civilization itself.
Just as society finds its roots in ancient Mesopotamia, the earliest evidence we have for the cultivation of grapes and the supervised fermentation of their juices dates back to 8000 B.C.
Archaeologists found grape pips (seeds), usually considered evidence of winemaking, dating from 8000 B.C. in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The oldest pips of cultivated vines were found in (then Soviet) Georgia from 7000-5000 B.C
The Egyptians recorded the harvest of grapes on the walls of their tombs; bottles of wine were even buried with pharaohs in order that they might entertain guests in the afterlife. Wine was also considered a drink of the elite in ancient Greece, and it was a centerpiece of the famous symposia, immortalized by Plato and the poets of the period.
But it was during the Roman era that wine became popular throughout society and the Romans exported wine and wine-making to the rest of Europe.
After the fall of Rome, wine continued to be produced in the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. It spread eastward to Central Asia along the Silk Route; grape wine was known in China by the eighth century.
During the Renaissance, the virtues of various wine regions were appreciated by the increasingly sophisticated wine drinkers, and by the 18th century the wine trade soared, especially in France, where Bordeaux became the preeminent producer of fine wines. The development of distinctive strains of wine grapes led to the production of regional wines with easily recognizable characteristics.
On 2 February 1659 the founder of Cape Town, Jan van Riebeeck, produced the first wine recorded in South Africa.
But despite the growing success of the industry, there was also a catastrophe: late in the century, the phylloxera epidemic destroyed many old European vines, a disaster that affected wine-making for decades. The plague was overcome by grafting cuttings of European varietal vines onto disease-resistant American rootstock.
Today wine-making is a global industry, with most of the countries of the world producing wine. Machines that can harvest huge areas by day or night have increased production, and modern viticultural science has ensured that the resulting product meets uniform standards, though sometimes at the expense of quality and flavor. Indeed, there has been a recent trend toward more traditional methods of wine-making such as unfiltered wines that preserve more of the grapes’ true character.
There are many wine producers in South Africa making wine in the traditional way. One such producer is Beaumont wines of Botriver.
We were invited to help with their annual port stomp in 2011 so that vintage of Beaumont port has our ‘footprint’!
How Does Wine Get Its Flavour?
Wine is the fermented juice of grapes. That statement does nothing to explain the complexities and subtleties of wine and its flavour. Wine gets its flavour from three different places: the grape itself, the climate where the grapes are grown and the winemaking process.
If this were not true, it wouldn’t matter if you were drinking a Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, a Bouchard
Finlayson Pinot Noir or a Creation Sauvignon Blanc: they would all taste the same. We know they don’t, so there must be reasons why.
Each grape varietal is different. Some are sturdier while others are more delicate. Some will develop more sugar while growing than others. Just compare Cabernet Sauvignon to Pinot Noir.
- Wine drinkers know that a Cabernet Sauvignon is heartier than a Pinot Noir.
- Growers know that Pinot Noir is the most difficult grape to grow, being very finicky about the soil and climate conditions in which it grows.
The climate in which a grape is grown has a tremendous effect on the wine. This has to do with the amount of sunlight each vine gets, the length of the growing season, the mineral content of the soil and the temperature (or microclimate) of the region. The amount of sunlight and length of the growing season will determine the amount of sugar (and later alcohol) in a grape.
The biggest contributing factor to flavour is yeast. It is the fermentation process that truly gives a wine its flavours.
Let’s take a quick look at what the yeast does. In order for yeast to live it has to eat, and what it likes to eat most (like a lot of us) is sugar.In the process, the sugar is digested and ends up as two things—carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. Once all the sugar is gone, the yeast stops growing and eventually dies. Sometimes, the yeast is killed by their own eating. What I mean is, the yeast produces so much alcohol that it no longer stays alive in the vat, even if sugar is still present.
If that were the only thing going on inside a vat of wine, they would all taste the same. So let’s get a little more complicated. Sometimes some oxygen is present in the vat, and the alcohol can be further converted into an acid (that’s how vinegar is made). If conditions are right, the acid will not stay an acid but will combine with the alcohol or other compounds from the grape to form what is called by chemists an “ester.” The important thing to remember is not how esters form but that they are the flavour compounds. When you say a white wine has a hint of apple or pear, or that a red wine has a berry-like character, it is because the esters in apples or pears or berries are present in the wine due to the extracurricular activities of the yeast.Speaking of extra activity, another good example can be seen in Chardonnays. If a Chardonnay is “buttery”, it is from the yeast working overtime and producing a compound called diacetyl—which also happens to give butter its flavour.
But what about the alcohol?
Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol—the product of yeast fermentation—has no flavour of its own. By that I mean it does not trigger any receptors in the tongue or nose. It does have an effect, which results from the alcohol interacting with the cells in the mouth. If you are planning on using a wine in cooking, particularly if it will be reduced or simmered, the alcohol should have no effect on flavour.
And just what about the sulphites?
A “sulphite” is a salt that is used by many winemakers to prevent oxidation of their wine.
In other words, they add sulphite to prevent the wine from turning to vinegar before you get a chance to drink it (or they get a chance to sell it). All wines contain sulphites, whether they are added or not, because it is one of those extracurricular products of yeast fermentation.
What are Tannins?
Tannins come from the grape’s skins, stems and seeds.
Thick-skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, produce more tannic wines than thinner-skinned varietals like Pinot Noir. And red wines have more tannin than whites. This is because red grape juice, spend more time swimming around with its skins than white grapes whose juice is separated from the skins soon after pressing. The juice of white grapes doesn’t hang out long enough with its skins to pick up tannins.Tannins affect the texture of a wine. We often experience them in the mouth as a drying sensation, rather than as a specific taste. In a young red wine with lots of tannins, they can come across as astringent and pucker-inducing, but the tannins will mellow with age, and are, in fact, one of the compounds that allow red wines to age gracefully.