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Wine is an alcoholic beverage most often made from the juice of grapes. Wine also can be made from many other fruits, including apples and pears, and even from such plants as dandelions. Many wines retain the flavor and aroma of the fruit from which they were made. For thousands of years, people have used wine to complement meals and to celebrate. They have also used it in cooking and medicine and in religious ceremonies.

Types of wine. Wines can be divided into four categories: (1) table wines, (2) sparkling wines, (3) fortified wines, and (4) flavored wines. Alcohol makes up from 7 to 14 per cent of the volume of most wines. But fortified wines have from 18 to 24 per cent.

Table wines are the most commonly produced type of wine. They are most often served with a meal. They may be grouped by color into red, white, and rose (pink) wines. Crushed grapes produce a light green or yellow juice. The juice is tinted by contact with grape skins. In general, red and rose wines are made from red or purple grapes, and white wines from white grapes. But a type of white wine called blanc de noir is made from red grapes. The grape skins have little contact with the juice, giving blanc de noir a paler color than rose.

Wine drinkers describe a wine that lacks sweetness as dry. Most red table wines are dry. But white wines and rose wines range from dry to sweet. Some white wines can be very sweet.

Sparkling wines, such as the champagne types, contain bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. People enjoy drinking sparkling wines on festive occasions.

Fortified wines have brandy or wine alcohol added to them. They tend to be sweeter than most other wines. For this reason, some people prefer to drink fortified wines with dessert or after a meal, while others choose to drink dry sherry or white port before dinner. The most popular fortified wines are port and sherry.

Flavored wines contain flavoring substances. For example, vermouth is a white wine flavored with herbs. Wine coolers are wines flavored with fruit juices. Most flavored wines are served alone or before a meal.

Where wine comes from. Most of the world's wine comes from grapes belonging to the species Vitis vinifera, which originated in the Middle East. Vinifera grapes are also known as European grapes. These grapes thrive in the vineyards of Europe and on the West Coast of the United States. Vinifera grapes produce their best wine when grown in regions that are cool but not cold. In the Eastern United States and in Canada, vinifera grapes have been crossbred with species native to North America, chiefly Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia. These hybrid grapes can withstand cold climates better than European grapes can. But in many cases, hybrid grapes keep some of the flavor of the native grapes.

Grape species are made up of many varieties. In the United States, many wines take the name of the variety of grapes from which they are principally made. Such wines are often called varietals. Examples of varietal wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. According to U.S. law, a varietal made from vinifera grapes must contain at least 75 per cent of the variety after which it is named.

Most European wines are classified by the region they come from, such as Burgundy or Bordeaux in France or the valley of the Rhine River in Germany. Wines called generics sometimes take the name of a region in Europe, even though they may show little resemblance to wines from that region. A generic wine is usually a blend of several varieties of grapes.

Most nations produce some wine. The countries most famous for their wine include France, Italy, the United States, and Germany. Spain and Portugal also produce well-known wines.

Wines from France are famous because of French growing conditions and winemaking methods. The country's chief winemaking regions include Bordeaux, in southwestern France; Burgundy, in east-central France; and Champagne, east of Paris.

In the Bordeaux region, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes go into making dry red wines. White Bordeaux wines come from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Pinot Noir grapes form the basis of the red wines of Burgundy. White Burgundy wines come from Chardonnay grapes. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes also form the basis of champagne, a sparkling wine of the Champagne region.

Wines from Italy. Grapevines grow throughout Italy. The red wines of the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy are known as Barolo and Barbaresco. They come from Nebbiolo grapes. Cortese grapes, also grown in the region, produce a crisp white wine called Gavi. Chianti, probably the most familiar Italian wine, comes mainly from Sangiovese grapes native to the regions of Tuscany and Umbria in central Italy.

Wines from the United States. California produces about 90 per cent of the wine made in the United States. New York, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, and several other states also make wine. California wines are made from the same varieties of vinifera grapes as are European wines. California's chief grape-growing regions include the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco Bay; the central coast; and the San Joaquin Valley, in the middle of the state.

Wines from Germany. Germany's distinctive white wines are produced mainly from Riesling grapes. Sylvaner grapes are also used to make white wine. Riesling and Sylvaner wines come from all of the country's winemaking regions, particularly those along the Rhine, Moselle (or Mosel), and Nahe rivers.

Wine styles from other countries include port and sherry. Port is a fortified wine that may be dark red or white. It was first made from grapes grown in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Sherry, a fortified white wine, ranges from pale gold to brown and from dry to sweet. The first sherry wines came from grapes grown in Jerez in southwestern Spain.

How wine is made. Winemaking requires a series of steps. Decisions made by the winemaker during each step influence the final "character" of the wine. A winemaker must first decide which grapes to use and when to harvest them. After the grapes are crushed, the juice is converted into wine through a process called fermentation. Wine is then aged until it is ready for drinking.

Harvesting the grapes. Grape growers harvest their crop as soon as the grapes have ripened, usually in the fall. Winemakers commonly measure ripeness by the amount of sugar in the grapes. They may also consider the grapes' acid content, flavor, and aroma. Workers pick grapes by hand or with mechanical harvesters that shake the fruit from the vine. The grapes then go to the winery for processing. The grape harvest is sometimes called the vintage. In some years, a favorable climate produces grapes of especially high quality. Those vintage years are considered superior.

Preparing the juice. At the winery, a machine called a crusher breaks the grapes and removes them from their stems. The crushed grapes and their juice are called must. The length of contact between the juice and the skin affects the color of red wines and the taste of all wines. To make white wine, winemakers separate the skins and pulp from the juice. The juice then enters a tank or barrel for fermentation. In making red wine, the seeds and skins go into the fermentation tank with the juice. Stirring the mixture from time to time ensures that the color is extracted from the skins.

Fermentation is the chemical change in which yeast converts the sugar in grapes into alcohol. Some yeast grows naturally on the skins of grapes. Some European winemakers allow this yeast to conduct the fermentation. In the United States and most other countries, winemakers add selected yeasts to the must to begin fermentation. During fermentation, the yeast grows and changes sugars called glucose and fructose into ethanol, a type of alcohol, and carbon dioxide gas. The carbon dioxide is released as bubbles. The yeast also produces various by-products that may add to the wine's flavor and aroma.

Fermentation also releases heat. Most wineries refrigerate the must to keep its temperature constant during fermentation. Winemakers usually ferment juice for white wine at about 59 °F (15 °C) and juice for red wine at about 86 °F (30 °C). The temperature of the must influences the rate of fermentation, the retaining of grape aromas, and the formation of yeast by-products. It also determines the rate at which the color and flavor of the grape skins transfer into the wine. The fermentation of red wine takes from 4 to 6 days. White-wine fermentations last from 12 to 18 days.

Most red table wines and some white table wines undergo a second fermentation, by bacteria. This fermentation, called the malolactic fermentation, lowers a wine's acid content by converting a substance called malic acid into lactic acid.

Clarifying and aging the wine. A new wine appears cloudy after fermentation. Winemakers clarify (clear) the wine by removing particles of yeast and other unwanted substances. Such particles may be filtered out, allowed to settle naturally, or separated from the wine by a machine called a centrifuge. Wine may be further clarified, or fined, by adding certain solutions that reduce the content of unstable or unpleasant components.

After clarification, wine goes into wooden barrels or stainless steel tanks for aging. Wooden barrels contribute their own flavor to the wine. The size of the barrel, the age of the wood, the storage temperature and humidity, and the length of storage time all influence the extent of the aging process. Many wineries hold wine at a temperature close to freezing for one or more days so that a salt called potassium bitartrate will precipitate (separate) out of the wine. This prevents the salt from forming crystals in the wine after bottling.

Although some wines are soon ready for drinking, others must age a few years to soften harsh flavors and allow desirable flavors to develop. Wine is bottled after some aging, and it continues to age slowly in the bottle.

Fortified wines, such as port and sherry, are made by adding brandy to fermenting must. The brandy halts the fermentation by killing the yeast before all the sugar has turned into alcohol. The wine that results generally is sweet. Drier fortified wines are achieved by adding brandy near or at the end of fermentation. Sparkling wines are usually made by a second yeast fermentation of a table wine. This fermentation may take four to eight weeks. The bubbles of carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation are trapped in the wine.

History. The earliest references to wine date back about 5,000 years to civilizations in ancient Egypt and Babylon (now part of Iraq). Egyptian picture writing shows people harvesting and crushing grapes and storing wine in clay vessels. The Bible tells of winemaking in Canaan (later called Palestine). The ancient Greeks and Romans dealt extensively with wine in their paintings and writings. The Romans planted grapevines in regions they conquered, including what are now Austria, France, and Germany.

From about A.D. 500 to 1400, the spread of Christianity in Europe encouraged the growing of grapes to make the wines used in religious ceremonies. After the 1500's, European explorers and settlers introduced vinifera grapes to the lands now known as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.

Contributor: Roger Boulton, Ph.D., Prof. of Enology, Univ. of California, Davis.

FEBRUARY, 27, 2003



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