Tag Archives: Wine

Understanding Wine: Time, Place, Climate & Soil

“[Wine] is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars.”

-Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics

PLACE

Wine is fermented grape juice. Fermented grape juice has been consumed by humans for over 7,000 years. Grapes grow on vines that flourish in sunny, warm, temperate, dry climates, generally near a body of water in valleys, on hillsides, and sometimes in high altitudes. These vines can produce grapes for decades before starting to decline, some even lasting over 50 years (typical is 20-40, but the oldest vines in the world are a mind-blowing 400 years old in Maribor, Slovenia which still produce wine!). Wine is innately connected to the culture, people, time and place it comes from. It is an expression of the tastes, values, soil and sun; a labor of love that is dedicated to its cultivation and expression. When you drink wine, you are traveling to another place and time.

CLIMATE & SOIL

Unlike most plants, for a grapevine to thrive it actually needs to be pushed to struggle, to survive. This strengthens the roots, stabilizes the trunk and increases the absorption of nutrients from the soil (mainly nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), which arguably heightens the character of the grapes produced. This means that the soil cannot be overly moist- in fact, the best soils drain quickly and deeply, encouraging the roots to pull further into the earth for water. There are many kinds of soil with varying benefits. The smaller the particles, the easier it is to retain nutrients and moisture to feed the roots, but over saturation might be a problem. So, the best soils are actually a mixture of several different types, which allows for optimum drainage and nutrient retention. Here is a list of some typical soils, where they are generally found, what kinds of grapes grow well in them and their effects on wine (click on the chart to enlarge):

TIME & STRUGGLE

One of the most intriguing, even sacred aspects of wine is the requisite of time. Especially now, in our modern world, few things take less than a “click” to execute. Such a huge perspective shift we have assumed, our new relation to time and how we see ourselves in it. Regarding grape growing alone, it takes anywhere from 3-6 years for newly planted vines to start producing harvestable grapes. Generally speaking, as young vines mature, the grapes they produce develop more character and consistently produce better wine for a period of about 10 years, until they pass their prime and begin to decline, showing signs of disease. The vines must then be pulled out, the soil is reset, and new vines or seeds are planted. After the harvest, production time takes anywhere from 7 months to 5 years before it’s released to the public*. After the bottle has been sold, it may be another 15 years before it’s consumed, depending on the quality/ageability/interests of the consumer. All in all, you could be looking at a time span of 20 years or more from vine to glass.

The ins and outs of winemaking are complicated, and its harder still to define just what makes a wine great. Some people focus on who made it, others how it was made, or that je ne sais quoi, these days called “terroir”. Take this term carefully, and don’t assume that whomever uses it is using it well. But there is a beautiful, magical thing that happens when all the elements of winemaking come together in a way that is honestly beyond words. In some of my posts I try to describe the sensations it brings me. But here the only logical thing I could do was try leave you with a formula:

Terroir Formula

*this is based on a wide variety of regulations and/or production decisions made by the winemaker, which I’ll talk about in another “Understanding Wine” post.

Tikveš Vranec, Special Selection, Macedonia 2011

This is a perfect example of reason #3* to drink wine: to travel (be transported). Who doesn’t want to try a wine from Macedonia? Ok, it wasn’t the best glass I’ve ever had, but it held its ground against an array of plates (escargot, rabbit spaetzle, and cumin lamb ribs) offering good acidity, balanced fruit, thick tannins…but that’s not what was interesting to me. I just closed my eyes, swilled my glass and imagined Macedonia: hot, dry heat, spices, black, red, yellow, Alexander the Great and his magnificent steed Bucephalus, iron, gold, sweat, fire. Regardless if my wine-swilling fantasy had any truth or not, it really got me to connect with this wine.

Where is Macedonia? Hidden between Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo. Yes, it’s completely landlocked but has a river and shares 2 lakes with Albania, one of which I believe to be pictured below:

scenery_macedonia

Actually, the country as a whole appears to be much more lush than I previously imagined. The climate varies- there’s even snow in the high mountains near the lakes. Of course, things may have changed since 330 BC, when it may very well have been desert.

Macedonia has three primary wine-growing regions:

Red is the most commonly produced in the following varietals, most of which are international: Vranec (which I had), Cabernet Sauvignon, Kratosija, and Merlot. Apparently, the best and most popular grape with Macedonians is Stanušina Crna, of Macedonian origin capable of producing very high quality wine but basically unknown internationally.

So, when and how was wine introduced? The earliest grape seeds have been dated to the Neolithic period, somewhere around 4000 BC. From Maron, the first to “discover” the art of wine-making and the one to offer 10 amphorae of wine to Homer’s Ulysses (who later uses it to intoxicate the Cyclops), to Aristotle’s personal vineyard at Thasos, followed by an in-depth inscription of rules and regulations regarding the cultivation, sale and exportation of wine, it is clear that Macedonia has been a wine country for a long, long time. Even during the fall of the Roman empire, while Greece and the rest of Western Europe saw a great decline in wine production, the Byzantine era is said to be one of the most fruitful (pardon the pun) for Macedonia. However, much later during the phylloxera epidemic in 1898, their vineyards virtually disintegrated and have never fully recovered, even with the transplantation of French, Bulgarian, and other European vines.

Understanding Wine: The Un-Knowing (aka the Importance of Blind Tasting)

If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that I’m an experiential learner. Everything makes more sense when it’s tested, and the more senses I can use, the better. Somewhere between visual and kinesthetic, it seems I have a particular aversion to textbooks and homework. It’s not that I can’t do that stuff, I just feel trapped in someone else’s mind (usually an ageing Edwardian man), and it’s uncomfortable.

Going through school, subjects I was once passionate about became hell; a good example of this is math, or better, science. As a kid, I loved collecting samples, experimenting with the elements, excavating, and playing with light. The funny part is that in high school I nearly failed Geology, dropped out of Biology, argued my way out of Chemistry, but then took AP Physics for which i did extracurricular work and got an A. Why is this? Because through real-life trial and error (using my own body), I could apply theory and test its relevance. This was not only incredibly satisfying, it grounded my understanding of what would have otherwise been very abstract and difficult material.

The same goes for wine. As an infinitely complex subject, it’s easy to get lost in the fluff of overworked, exhausting language, overlapping histories, tasting prerogatives, appellations and vintages. With all the confusion of memorizing this and that, there’s a major gap between reciting the material and KNOWING the wine. Really, don’t forget the basics. Here’s a classic example that gives me anxiety, as quoted from a french wine scholar:

“The textbook indicates that there are 24 Regional AOPs in Bourgogne (plus 44 Communal and 33 Grand Cru for a total of 101). However Appendix A lists only 23, and www.bourgogne-wines.com likewise states that there are 23. What is the missing AOP, or how else does one account for this discrepancy?”

While the scholar is focused on solving the discrepancy between 23 and 24 Burgundy AOPs, a more fruitful discussion might include questions like: what does it take to be labeled an AOP? Is AOP actually important for distinguishing good wines? What makes good wine? Why? And most importantly, if I was poured a [insert Regional AOP Burgundy] Pinot Noir blind in a glass, would I know? It seems that these questions would facilitate independent thinking on the scholar’s part, perhaps even offering solutions to the discrepancy they describe (or better yet, deeper insights that push the scholar past this question all together).

Being a human is complicated. We are often our own worst enemies, and find ourselves hard to understand or connect to. Especially in our modern world, we are trained to operate externally, objectively, and over time we begin to lose our subjective muscles- our sensory perceptions. When you look down at your hands, what do you see? Do you see your hands, or do you feel them? Do you see yourself feeling your hands? Or, does  seeing your hands stimulate your awareness of sense of touch? If you can answer yes to this last question, you are able to connect one sense to another. Bravo!

Connecting our senses is a big part of what makes us humans intelligent. The better we are at understanding ourselves through our minds AND bodies, the better we can process insane amounts of information, share it, and have fun doing it. So instead of lugging around a wine encyclopedia, pick up a glass and give it a whirl without even knowing what it is. Challenge yourself, see how many senses you can use to relate (or not) to the wine. What does the smell remind you of? What does it feel like on your tongue? Does it taste weird? How? Most importantly, do you like it? There are no wrong answers here.

Of course, reading is awesome and everyone should do it. But in order to really absorb written material, make it come to life for YOU. Start with the subject. Get interested, then do research- not the other way around***. Questions that stem from your own curiosity lead to answers that really stick in your mind and your sensory perceptions. Reading about wine with no objective is like sailing at sea with no compass. You will get lost in the doldrums or sink by iceberg. Like anything, it takes a certain amount of conscious re-training of your brain’s habits, but the results will blow your mind.

***BONUS POINTS to teachers and educational programs who choose to adopt this, or already engage their students in this manner.