For our first column, we want to start with the basics or, as Prince once said, K.I.S.S. – keep it simple, silly (that’s what he meant, right?). Let’s talk about what exactly wine is. First of all, it is two things: grape juice and yeast. But where does it come from, how is it made? As we do with our shop guests, the goal is to use our passion about wine to educate and establish confidence to help expand your palate.
Let’s start from the source – the vine! There are two species of grapes: Vitis Vinifera (wine grapes) and Vitis Labrusca (not wine grapes.) Vitis Labrusca is the North American species of grapes – think concord, muscadine or scuppernong as well as your basic table grapes. While some ‘wines’ are made from these grapes, it is not the traditional drink that we will be focused on, although we may have a future column here.
Vitis Vinifera comes from the other side of the globe, and archaeologists dated wine back to 6000 BCE in Georgia – the country not the state – where grapes were buried in clay pots and fingers were crossed. All grapes that make wine come from Europe, also known as the “Old World.” They have been planted in the “New World,” which encompasses North America, South America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Modern production has become much more sophisticated, but the same general premise remains – grape juice and yeast.
There are over 10,000 different types of grapes that make wine. Most of these have been mutations that have naturally occurred over time (Pinot Noir is daddy to Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier) or through human propagation, like Alicante Bouchet. Despite this diverse set, most of the top grapes are ones we all know: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Syrah. It is in small areas, especially in the Old World, that the unheard of varietals are grown like Schiava and Treixudura.
These vines are carefully tended to, grapes are harvested, yeast is added or the already existing yeast begins to consume the sugars within the grapes and the fermentation process begins. White wine is made by removing the skin of the grape, while the skin remains when making red. Rosé is made from red grapes, with only a minimal amount of skin contact occurring – think hours not days. Everyone’s favorite, orange wine, is made when white wine is fermented with skin giving the wine a richer, orangish hue.
After fermentation, the winemaking part begins. This is where the winemaker becomes the artist. Think of it like a chef in a kitchen: What style of wine are they trying to produce? Are the grapes shining through? What does the terroir, or the land, give to the wine? Is oak a factor and if so for what effect? There are regions that have rules to dictate, for instance in Rioja, Crianza wine needs to be aged for a minimum of one year in oak and one year in bottle. These standards are appropriate for mostly the traditional expressions of the region; however, winemakers still elaborate to allow for uniqueness in their own wineries.
Now that we have some basic principles, we can begin to dive into the specifics of what draws us and other professionals into this business. Like we said – it’s all just grapes and yeast, but there is always a story and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.
Sarah’s Wine Pick When I’m helping people navigate their new wine journey, I always suggest drinking the classic grape varietals in order to learn the foundations. When I first started drinking wine, I found myself drinking quite a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. It started with Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley, and over the last decade I almost exclusively drink French Sauvignon Blanc. I have recently fallen back in love with Claude Riffault Sancerre Les Boucauds from Loire Valley, France. Stéphane and Benedicte Riffault farm organically and biodynamically, using no chemicals or synthetic materials. There is so much energy in this wine! This Sauvignon Blanc sees a touch of neutral French oak barrel adding a bit of richness, but overall, the wine has an electric minerality with notes of citrus, white peach, and pineapple. A bottle retails for around $36.99.