Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What Is Wine?

According to Wikipedia, wine is an alcoholic beverage produced by the fermentation of the juice of fruits, usually grapes. Although a number of other fruits such as plum, elderberry and blackcurrent may also be fermented, only grapes are naturally chemically balanced to ferment completely without requiring extra sugars, acids, enzymes or other nutrients. Non-grape wines are called fruit wine or country wine. Other products made from starch based materials, such as barley wine, rice wine (sake) are more similar to beers. Beverages made from other fermentable material such as honey (mead) or that are distilled, such as brandy, are not wines. The English wine and its equivalents in other languages are protected by law in many jurisdictions.

Little is actually known of the prehistory of wine. It is plausible that early foragers and farmers made alcoholic beverages from wild fruits, including wild grapes (Vitis silvestris). This would have become easier following the development of pottery vessels in the later Neolithic of the Near East, about 9000 years ago. However, wild grapes are small and sour, and relatively rare at archaeological sites. It is unlikely they could have been the basis of a wine industry.

Domesticated grapes were abundant in the Near East from the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, starting in 3200 BC. There is also increasingly abundant evidence for wine making in Sumer and Egypt in the third millennium BC. The ancient Chinese made wine from native wild "mountain grapes" like Vitis thunbergii for a time, until they imported domesticated grape seeds from Central Asia in the second century BC. Grapes were, of course, also an important food. There is scant evidence for earlier domestication of grape, in the form of grape pips from Chalcolithic Tell Shuna in Jordon, but this evidence remains unpublished.

Exactly where wine was first made is still unclear. It could have been anywhere in the vast region, stretching from Spain to Central Asia, where wild grapes grow. However, the first large-scale production of wine must have been in the region where grapes were first domesticated, Southern Caucasus and the Near East. Wild grapes grow in George, northern Levant, coastal and southeastern Turkey, northern Iran or Armenia. None of these areas can, as yet, be definitively singled out, despite persistent suggestions that George is the birthplace of wine.

Wines are usually named either by their grape variety or by their place of production. Generally speaking, Old World (European) wines are named for the place of production, with the grapes used often not appearing on the label. New World wines (those from everywhere except Europe) are generally named for the grape variety. More and more, however, market recognition of particular regions and wineries is leading to their increased prominence on New World wine labels. Examples of recognized locales include: Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, Willamette Valley, Sonoma, Walla Walla, Central Coast, etc. Still, though, the grape variety is almost invariably present on the label. This is not the case with most European wines because of tradition and legal restrictions. However, to consumers, the system can be confusing if not impenetrable. For example, 72% of French adults report that they have difficulty understanding wine labels. This is understandable; the many systems of geographic nomenclature with their precise meanings and implications are highly complex.

Within Europe, a major exception to the no-grape rule is with German wines, for which it is not uncommon to find this information on the front label. To accommodate market demands, an increasing number of French wine makers are labeling their bottles with the variety or varieties of grapes included, as permitted by law.

The taste of a wine depends not only on the grape species and varietal blend, but also on the ground and climate (known as terroir) where it is cultivated. Historically, wines have been known by names reflecting their origin, and sometimes style: Bordeaux, Rioja, Mosel and Chianti are all legally defined names, reflecting the traditional wines produced in the named region. These naming conventions or "appellations" (as they are known in France) dictate not only where the grapes in a wine were grown, but also which grapes went into the wine and how they were vinified. The appellation system is strongest in the European Union, but a related system, the American Viticultural Area, restricts the use of certain regional labels in America, such as Napa Valley, Santa Barbara and Willamette Valley.

While most countries restrict the use of European place names, there exists a legal definition called semi-generic in the United States that enables U.S. winemakers to use certain generic terms (Champagne, Hock, Sherry, etc.) if there appears next to the term the actual appellation of origin in order to prevent any possible confusion. Generally only the most inexpensive, mass-produced wines (or vin ordinaire) make use of these place names as semi-generic wine names; most of those now use the more popular varietal labeling.

Some blended wine names are marketing terms and the use of these names is governed by trademark or copyright law, rather than a specific wine law or a patent on the actual varietal blend or process used to achieve it. For example, Meritage is generally a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and may also include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Use of the term Meritage is protected by licensing agreements by The Meritage Association.

Wine is a popular and important beverage that accompanies and enhances a wide range of European and Mediterranean-style cuisines, from the simple and traditional to the most sophisticated and complex. Red, white and sparkling wines are the most popular, and are also known as light wines, because they only contain approximately 10-14% alcohol. (Alcohol percentages are usually by volume.) The aperitif and dessert wines contain 14-20% alcohol, and are fortified to make them richer and sweeter than the light wines. Although there are many classes of dinner wines, they can be categorized under six specific classes as follows:
  • Apéritif (or better known as "appetizer wines"): include dry sherry, Madeira, Vermouth and other flavored wines, made to be consumed before eating a meal.
  • Red wines are usually dry and go well with such main-course dishes as read meats, spaghetti and highly-seasoned foods.
  • Rosé wines (also called "pink wines") can be served with almost any dish, but are considered best with seafood, salads, cold cuts, pork and curries.
  • White wines can be very dry to rather sweet, these wines should be served chilled, and go well with white meats, seafood and fowl.
  • Sparkling wines are frequently served at banquets, formal dinners and weddings. They can be white, pink (rosé), or red. The best known sparkling wines come from the Champagne region in France. Sparkling wines from Spain are called Cava, and in Germany they are called Sekt. Although often served throughout a meal, sparkling wines do not generally pair well with main meals, and should be served as an apéritif or with certain entrées.
  • Table wine is not bubbly, although some have a very slight carbonation, the amount of which is not enough to disqualify them as table wines. According to U.S. standards of identity, table wines may have an alcohol content that is no higher than 14%. In Europe, light wine must be within 8.5% and 14% alcohol by volume. As such, unless a wine has more than 14% alcohol, or it has bubbles, it is a table wine or a light wine. In reality, in those regions where grapes ripen fully, such as California's hot Central Valley, a large portion of New World red wines have between 14 and 15.5% alcohol, yet are still certainly 'table wines' in the practical sense.
  • Dessert wines range from medium-sweet to very sweet. These wines are classified under dessert wines only because they are sometimes served with desserts. Among these are port wine, sweet sherry, Tokaji (Tokay), Sauternes and muscatel.
  • Cooking wines typically contain a significant quantity of salt. It is a wine of such poor quality, that it is unpalatable by itself and intended for use only in cooking. (Note, however, that most cooking authorities advise against cooking with any wine one would find unacceptable to drink.)
The labels on certain bottles of wine suggest that they need to be set aside for an hour before drinking to breathe, while other wines are recommended to be drunk as soon as they are opened. "Breathing" means allowing a wine to aerate before drinking. Generally, younger wines benefit from some aeration, while older wines do not. The word, "younger", refers to the first one third of a wine’s life, which varies from wine type to wine type and from wine to wine. For most red wines, "younger" means up to one to two years, while for white wines, it could mean as little as a few months. However, with every rule, there are exceptions: for a Beaujolais Nouveau, younger is measured in months, if not weeks; for a hearty Barossa Shiraz, it could be up to ten years. "Older", as one would expect, refers to the last one third of a wine's life.

During aeration, the exposure of younger wines to air often "relaxes" the flavours and makes them taste smoother and better integrated in aroma, texture, and flavor. Wines that are older generally fade (lose their character and flavor intensity) with extended aeration. Breathing, however, does not benefit all wines, and should not therefore be taken to the extreme. In general, wine should be tasted as soon as it is opened to determine how long it may be aerated, if at all. It should then be tasted every 15 minutes until the wine is, according to individual preference, ready to drink. As a general rule, younger white wines normally require no more than 15-30 minutes of aeration while younger red wines should be no more than 30-60 minutes. If in doubt, it is better to err on the side of too little aeration than too much. Note that 'aerating' a wine involves more than removal of the cork. For aeration to provide any benefit whatsoever, the wine must be decanted.

How about the health effects of wine (and alcohol in general)? Well, they are considerable ongoing studies regarding this subject.

It now seems clear that regular consumption of up to 1-2 drinks a day (1 standard drink is approximately equal to 5 oz, or 125 ml, of 13% wine) does reduce mortality, due to a 10%–40% lower risk of coronary heart disease, especially for those over the age of 35 or so. Originally, the effect was observed with red wine. Compounds, known as polyphenols, are found in larger amounts in red wine, and there is some evidence that these are especially beneficial. One particularly interesting polyphenol antioxidant found in red wine is resveratrol, to which numerous beneficial effects have been attributed. Red wine also contains a significant amount of flavonoids and red anthocyanin pigments that act as antioxidants. With excessive consumption, however, any health benefits may be offset by the increased rate of various alcohol-related diseases, primarily cancers of mouth, upper respiratory tract, and ultimately, cirrhosis of liver, especially if consumption of red wine is immoderate.

Other studies have shown that similar beneficial effects on the heart can be obtained from drinking beer, and distilled spirits. However, recent studies show that only red wine reduces the risk of contracting several types of cancer where beer and other alcoholic beverages show no change. Dr. Sinclair of Harvard University and others believe that resveratrol is the active molecule responsible for the significant difference in lowering cancer risks and that the required amounts are only found in red wine. Trace amounts of resveratrol exist in grapes, white and red wine and peanuts.

Sulfites (or sulphites) are chemicals that occur naturally in grapes and also are added to wine as a preservative. They can trigger a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction in a small percentage of consumers, primarily asthmatics. In the USA nearly all commercially produced wine, including that with no added sulfites, is required to state on the label "contains sulfites." In other countries they do not have to be declared on the label, leading to a common mistaken belief that only wine from the USA contains sulfites. Many consumers who have adverse reactions to wine, such as headaches or hangovers, blame added sulfites but are probably reacting instead to naturally-occurring biogenic amines such as histamine. The quantity of sulfites in a glass of wine is the same as in a serving of dried apricots.

Okay, that's all I have for wine at this moment in time. So, lets enjoy our wine and cheers...

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