That Great Gift of Nature We Call – WINE! (Part 2 )

Making wine from grapes is, at its heart, a simple natural process. (See That Great Gift of Nature We Call – WINE Part 1) Making wine today has become a unique blend of art and science, as winemakers have learned how to manipulate and control nature’s basic good idea.

To make good wine, you need good grapes. There is a saying in wine country, “Wine is made in the vineyard”. Without good fruit to begin with, there is little possibility of good wine. The grape grower needs to pick the grapes at optimal ripeness. This is not as simple as it sounds, as different components in that complex liquid, grape juice, reach their optimal ripeness at different times. To give the wine strength, the wine maker wants maximum sugar. To give the wine complexity, the wine maker wants some of the other natural components of the grapes – acids, phenols, bioflavenoids, and others we are still discovering – at their peak. Monitoring these different aspects of ripeness is a crucial preoccupation of wine makers as the fall harvest season progresses.

The amount of sugar in the grapes determines the amount of alcohol in the finished wine. One peculiar fact of nature is that the alcohol in wine is toxic to the yeasts that are essential to its making; most yeasts die when the alcohol content reaches 12 to 13%, so there is a natural limit on the amount of alcohol a wine can maintain. Scientists have experimented with developing new strains of yeast that can survive alcohol concentrations as high as 17%, so many modern wines are much higher in alcohol than older traditional wines ever were. Note particularly that new world Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah tend to have much higher alcohol content than old world burgundies, Bordeaux and chiantis, for example.

It didn’t take wine makers long to figure out that, if grapes are less than optimally ripe, the alcohol content of the wine can be increased by simply adding sugar to the fermenting grape juice. This process is known as chaptaliztion, named after the French minister of agriculture who first authorized it (more to support sugar beet farmers than to help the wine makers!) But remember, it is not just the sugar in the grapes that contributes to the quality of the finished wine, so excessive chaptalization may add alcohol but lead to a dumb wine.

The finished wine, then, may be about 12 to 15% alcohol – with many exceptions beyond that range. As it began as grape juice, it is also about 85% water. So that leaves the finished wine something like this:

85% water + 13% alcohol + 2% other stuff = 100% wine


83% water + 14% alcohol + 3% other stuff = 100% wine

The “other stuff” is a complex mixture of organic chemicals either found in the grape juice or formed in the wine. Literally thousands of these chemicals have been identified; they include: acids, tannins, esters, phenols, aldehydes, other types of alcohols and sugars, and many others.

It is this last little bit, the 2 to 3% of ‘”other stuff” that is responsible for much of the character of the wine, that separates great wine from ordinary plonk, that gives complexity and uniqueness to a wine, that determines whether or not a wine will age gracefully to greatness.

That Great Gift of Nature That We Call – WINE! (Part 3)

Making wine from grapes is, at its heart, a simple natural process. (See That Great Gift of Nature We Call – WINE (Part 1 and Part 2) But certain wines have their own unique character that depends upon more direct intervention on the part of the winemaker. We look at some of those unique wines in this article.

Champagne and Sparkling Wine:
According to legend, a French monk named Dom Perignon at Haut-Villiers in France was the person who discovered the secret of capturing the bubbles in wine, making the wine that today we call champagne. Those bubbles are carbon dioxide produced in the natural fermentation that turns grapes into wine. (See That Great Gift of Nature We Call – WINE Part 1) By keeping the fermenting juice in a closed container – a wine bottle – the gas bubbles cannot escape into the air, and so are kept dissolved in the wine inside the bottle. As you might expect, this results in a tremendous increase in the pressure inside the bottle, so in the early days, exploding bottles eliminated most of the crop! Special heavy glass bottles were developed to address this issue, but even today 1 to 2% of Champagne production is lost when bottles explode.

The other thing kept in the bottle with the bubbles is the sediment formed during the fermentation. In early days, champagne was a cloudy wine, filled with bits of this sediment, all stirred up by the bubbles. If you look at antique wine glasses from the 19th century, you will see they are made of frosted glass to hide this murkiness. It was the Widow Cliquot (Veuve Cliquot), one of the first woman entrepreneurs to head a champagne house, who discovered a process for removing the sediment without losing the bubbles. This process involves riddling (remuage) by turning the bottle upside down and shaking it gently over a long period of time to gather all the sediment on the end of the bottle’s closure. (which is usually a simple cap at this point; the classic wire-wrapped mushroom shaped corks are not added until the end of this process.) Just the neck of the bottle is then frozen solid, and the cap removed. The high pressure inside pushes the frozen plug out, (dégorgement or disgorging) a dose of sugar syrup with brandy (the ‘dosage’) is put into the bottle to replace the frozen plug, and the fancy wire-wrapped cork is inserted. Now the champagne is clear and ready for sale, and when you open it, the cork will pop, pushed by the pressure from inside. Learn to control this by holding the cork firmly in one hand and slowly but firmly twisting the bottle with the other hand holding the bottom of the bottle. Be sure the bottle is not pointing at anyone; an uncontrolled pop of the cork can be extremely dangerous.

Other countries around the world and other regions of France make sparkling wine, but it is not ‘champagne’ unless it is grown and made in the Champagne region of France. (In the bad old days, many countries used to call their sparkling wine champagne, as in Canadian Champagne or California Champagne. Most jurisdictions have ceased this fraudulent practice; unfortunately it persists in Canada.) Many of these sparkling wines are of very fine quality, sometimes quite competitive with champagne. But only champagne is champagne!

On the label of many of these other sparkling wines you may see the words “Traditional Method” (Méthode Traditionelle, Metodo Classico). A wine with this term on the label has been made by the same method of in-the-bottle fermentation, just like champagne, complete with riddling, disgorging, dosage, and fancy corking.

Champagne and other sparkling wines may be labelled as vintage or non-vintage; the non-vintage wines usually say ‘brut reserve’ or ‘special reserve’ on the label but will lack a vintage date. All the major producers keep stocks of reserve wine on hand from previous years, blending them to try to achieve a consistent house style. But in great years, when the wine is perfect as it comes from the vineyard and winery, the best wine of that year will be bottled separately, with that vintage stated on the label. The producer will usually keep some of the wine of that vintage to add to their reserves for blending in future years.

Fortified Wine:
The fermentation process turns the sugars in grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide. As all the sugar in the wine is used up in fermentation, the finished wine is dry. Winemakers have discovered a number of ways to keep some of the sugar from fermenting, so that the finished wine will be naturally sweet.

Remember that the alcohol formed during fermentation is toxic to the yeast; once the alcohol concentration reaches 14% or so, fermentation will naturally stop. In Portugal, winemakers developed the technique of dumping a measured quantity of brandy into the fermenting wine, instantly raising the alcohol content to about 20%. This high level of alcohol kills the yeast and stops the fermentation, so there remains a significant quantity of unfermented sugar in the wine, making it sweet. This is how they make port. Port is a very strong, high alcohol product, and will keep for a very long time, in part due to the preserving qualities of the alcohol.

The very best port, from fine years, is bottled two years after the vintage, and the vintage date is stencilled onto the bottles (and indicated on the labels, which are added later). This is called vintage port, and must be cellared for ten to twenty or more years to slowly evolve into a magnificent, penetrating fiery sweet wine.

Other ports are kept in barrel at the wineries (called the port lodges) and aged to produce other types of port:

Late-bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is port from a single vintage that is aged from four to six years before being bottled. The label will always clearly state the vintage year and the fact that it is Late Bottled.
Tawny port of stated age. These are very fine ports; some connoisseurs prefer them to vintage ports. These tawny ports are a blend of aged ports, the age stated on the label is a weighted average of all the ports that went into the blend. They are ready for drinking when bottled. Beware of ports called tawny that do not have a stated age on the label; these are inferior products, made by blending young wines usually thought unsuitable for any other purpose. Many have extravagantly flamboyant labels proclaiming their worth – do not be misled!
Colheita ports are aged in wood, like tawnies, but from a single vintage year. They should have both a vintage date and a bottling date on the label. Sometimes they are decades old when bottled.
Ruby port is simply port that is bottled young, blended or unblended, without a stated age. These are entry-level products, made from the wines not chosen for vintage, LBV, or tawny of stated age. Some are drinkable, but they never evolve to greatness.
There are other styles of port: white port, pink port – I do not find these pleasing to my taste. Many port producers are now also producing dry red wines from the same grapes and vineyards where they grow their port grapes. These wines are called Douro, and may be very good, but so far they have not agreed on a consistent style, so it is hard to tell, when you buy a Douro wine, if it is one that should be aged or drunk young.

Port is the superb companion to fine cheeses – particularly good English Stilton – and also to fruit cake, nuts, fruit desserts, and most of all by itself as a contemplative sipping wine. I have had fine vintage ports more than half a century old still in full flight, full of fire and fruit, one of the world’s great wines.

Botrytized Wine:
Nature seems to have an endless variety of tricks with grapes, and discovering how to work with these little tricks has enabled winemakers to develop some fabulous natural wines. One of my favourites is a wine made from grapes that have been afflicted with a naturally occurring mould. This is a somewhat strange phenomenon, as it seems to occur quite naturally in a few areas of the world, the best known being the Sauternes district of Bordeaux, France.

This mould is known as botrytis, and it grows as a bloom on the grapes’ skin. Different wine-making regions have their own term for this: ‘pouriture noble’ in France, ‘edelfaul’ in Germany, Aszu in Hungary. The mycelium (like the roots) of the mould are able to penetrate through the skin of the grape without rupturing it; as the mould grows, it draws moisture from the grapes, causing them to shrivel up like raisins. In the process, the concentration of sugar in the juice left behind is raised significantly, because the water fraction has been decreased by the action of the mould. So when these grapes are picked, the resulting juice is just incredibly sweet, like a concentrate of the original juice.

This juice is so sweet the yeast has to struggle to make it ferment, and it ferments very slowly over a long period of time. By the time the alcohol content reaches 14 or 15% – enough to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation – there is still a large amount of unfermented sugar left in the wine, so the wine is very sweet, with a fine honeyed quality. The botrytis in the wine adds its own distinctive pungency to the aroma of these wines; a really fine sauternes will have the most penetrating, insistent, persistent bouquet of any wine you have ever had, often infused with hints of citrus and tropical fruits. The length of the finish and the lingering aftertaste may go on for hours, sometimes even coming back the next day as a haunting memory. Good sauternes will improve with age for many years, sometimes decades.

Sauternes is the perfect sweet wine to accompany desserts made with fresh fruit. I am particularly fond of sauternes with fruit flans. Sauternes also goes very well with all fine cheeses, particularly the strong blue cheeses of France: Roquefort, Bleu de Bresse, and the like. But a fine aged sauternes can also by itself be the dessert, just a glass of sweet nectar sipped slowly at the end of the meal – ambrosia!

Ice Wine:
Ice wine gapesNature has found another way to concentrate the essence of grape juice to make sweet concentrated wine. About -7 degrees Celsius, the water fraction of the grape juice will freeze, the ice crystals separating out from the rest of the grape juice. If you pick the wines and press them right at that moment, you can skim the ice crystals from the vat and leave the concentrated juice to ferment. Like Sauternes, the wine ferments very slowly, and stops while there is still a lot of unfermented sugar left in the juice. Unlike Sauternes, there is no botrytis involved, so ice wine, while it has intense sweetness, doesn’t acquire the pungent penetrating bouquet of Sauternes.

But it is a very good, intensely flavoured, very sweet wine, an excellent dessert wine or wine to sip as dessert. I think ice wine was first discovered in Germany (Eiswein) by happy accident, (in fact there is a legend about that) but Canada has emerged as the world’s leading producer, as we have much more reliable cold in the winter than most of the classic wine producing regions of the world. The very best ice wines are made in the Niagara Peninsula from Riesling grapes, and it is the most expensive. Most Canadian ice wine is made from Vidal grapes; Vidal ice wine has great sweetness and intensity, but in my experience usually lacks the classic breed and style of a good Riesling.

Bordeaux Vintages of the ‘70s


1970: A very fine vintage indeed. Many wines developed early with rich refined fruit flavours perfectly balanced with firm but not harsh tannins. They continued to develop complexity over many years. The lesser wines are now beginning to fade; the great growths are still in full flight. Delightful to drink, with rich chocolate aromas and fresh raspberry flavours adding complexity to the traditional cedar shavings and brambleberry Bordeaux character. Many memories linger still of classic, stylish, wonderful wines.

1971: Good but not great, these wines were initially a bit hard, lacking the generosity that full ripeness imparts. But they were pleasant and quite well balanced, showing typical Bordeaux character. Lesser chateaux were fully developed within their first decade, the best lasted well through their second.

1972: Hard, green, unripe – in short, not very nice. The best wines were pleasant if tart in their youth; very few developed at all beyond their first decade. Most were unpleasant early and worse later on. Some chateaux issued no wine of this vintage, others recalled it! As the market collapsed, many became available at excellent low prices, giving us the opportunity to taste wines from chateaux we can rarely afford, although most of the great names were not great wines.

1973: Delicious in their youth, these easy-drinking, pleasant fruity wines had no weight, depth or structure. After a dozen years, all but the best were fading, becoming pale and scented with notes of faded roses. The very best lasted well through their second decade, but all are now in decline.

1974: While not as bad as the ‘72s, this was another year of hard, acidic, ungenerous wines. Most showed typical flavours of berries and cedar, but lacked fruit and gave little inclination to soften or evolve during their first decade. Some decent examples came my way, but few were at all memorable.

1975: A year that continues to confound the pundits. Massive fruit was not so much supported as opposed by even more massive tannins. As the fruit has matured, the tannins have not softened, and many wines remained hard and unyielding after two decades and more. Yet the fruit and the classic flavours are there beneath it all, and some truly great wines are coming through in their maturity.

1976: Good but not great wines; most were pleasant and fruit forward in their youth, with harmonious balance, lacking great weight. But few developed much interest or complexity in their maturity. Simple wines, giving much pleasure at the table, lasting well through their second decade.

1977: Another hard year, with acidic wines lacking full generous fruit. But advancements in wine making technology enabled producers to achieve results significantly better than ’72 or ’74. Drinkable as decent table wines In their youth, none but the very finest survived their second decade.

1978: A very fine year indeed. Classic Bordeaux with good structure, ripe fruit, perfect balance, lacking only massive weight and concentration to qualify as a truly great vintage. The ‘78s have provided delightful tasting and drinking from their youth through their continuing maturity; the greatest are still holding well near their peak of perfection.

1979: An initially underappreciated year by most pundits, I have always found these wines delightful – full of rich, ripe, harmonious fruit. They lack the tannic structure to give them a long life or to achieve greatness, but were accessible early and provided more than two decades of fine drinking.


Bordeaux Vintages of the ‘60s


1960: The decade began with a rather light year, and one of my first as a wine lover and collector. These were good but not great wines, and gave much pleasure at the table in their youth, but they lacked the weight and structure to make old bones.

1961: An astounding year – candidate for vintage of the century, and one of the greatest vintages of all time! The wines are intense, concentrated, and taste immortal. Half a century on, the finest of them are still in full flight, but they will be hard to come by. If you get that rare chance, pay any price for the experience. The array of flavours will overwhelm all your senses, the concentration will command your attention and dare you to taste it!

1962: Were they not forced to live in the shadow of their illustrious predecessor, this vintage’s reputation would probably rank higher. The wines were solid, balanced and well structured, with good fruit and weight. They gave great pleasure through two decades; by now most will have passed their peak.

1963: Really not a very good year – some pundits called it a disaster, although I found one or two examples that were elegant but light in their youth. None had the stuffing needed for long life or development into fine old wines.

1964: A very good year across Bordeaux, particularly on the right bank (Pomerol and St. Emilion). Certainly nothing at all like the ‘61s, and maybe better overall than the ‘62s, these were classic Bordeaux that needed close to a decade to open up and reveal their finer qualities, and lasted well into their third decade.

1965: A very bad year overall. Today, winemaking technology might rescue some of these wines, but in the ‘60s, if nature dealt you a bad hand, you made bad wine. Most of the wines were thin and green, lacking fruit and mass. A few bottles from the better chateau were pleasant when young – that’s about the best I can say.

1966: This was a very good year indeed – it might even qualify as great. The wines are solid and concentrated, with all the true classic flavours and aromas we expect from good Bordeaux. They have lots of tannic structure, and needed at least a decade to show their potential. Most wines from lesser chateaux should have been drunk by now, but the best examples of classed growths have made really fine old bones, and are now providing – in their fifth decade and probably near the end of their lives – exquisite pleasure.

1967: This was a year of lighter wines, and the vintage is now more or less forgotten. But I had many that gave me great pleasure for over a decade; they showed delicious fruit when young, and some of the more complex flavours that come with age began appearing quite early.

1968: The decade closed on a dismal note: two really bad vintages in a row. I can’t remember any ‘68s I really enjoyed; I bought hardly any and they are mercifully all gone.

1969: Another very weak year to close out the decade, although not quite as bad a ’68. The wines were thin and somewhat harsh. As is often the case, good classed growth were accessible very young and made attractive table wines for most of their first decade and perhaps more, but few are left today.