Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Why wine is simply not just wine! A quick guide into the principles of wine production. The fundamentals. The core. The roots of wine and some examples from the German wine world.
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Wine is beautiful in its simplicity. At its most basic, wine is simply fermented grape juice. And yet, the world of wine is mostly made out to be sometimes indescribably complex! While sure myself and many of my guests on-tour do like to geek-out on what seems like trivial details around all things earth, stone and skin contact... In this post I try to briefly unpack some fundamental principles that are the most important things you can learn, or appreciate even before - but mostly after you take a mouth-filling slurp.
There's a handful of steps in making wine – and each one of these impacts what a wine will look, smell and taste like. Each topic gives you an explanation of why the principle is important, and then practical ways to see how it impacts the wines appearance, smell and taste.
1. Skin Contact
This isn't just a trendy type of wine. Contact with grape skins is one of the biggest differentiators in how your wine appears and and can influence its intensity. Why? Skins dictate the colour of your wine. Rose, orange, red, and white – all are driven by the use of skin contact. The longer a crushed/pressed wines are left on their skins - the more colour and flavour intensity will occur. It's the skins that make your Pinot Noir ( or Spätburgunder in Germany) red, as the flesh of the grape is more translucent white. Or you may have recently slurped an orange wine... again the colour here comes from white(er) variety of grape being left longer on the skins. So yes... Skins are a wonderful a key ingredient and influencer on the style of the wine. They contain tannins, colour, and flavour. The use of them is a choice which winemakers employ to dictate the profile of their wines.
2. Vessel used for the fermentation.
To turn the grape juice into wine requires a vessel to ferment the juice in. The big two are a wood usually 'oak' and 'stainless steel'. But increasingly you might see Roman looking terracotta amphora and concrete eggs as well. Like with skin contact, the vessels are a choice the winemaker has depending on how they want to maintain or maybe enhance the natural style of the grape variety.
While There is a romance about a wine fermenting a small wine barrel many people probably prefer a crisp clean more fruit forward wine fermented in steal. Many Rieslings are fermented in steal and this suits what Riesling can be at its best.. dry, crisp and fresh. Conversely, not all wood is about imparting oaky - earthy wooden notes. While steal was not always around or available likes it is today. So wineries used larger wooden barrels which today are still favoured by winemakers usually for a more premium full bodied wine style. In Germany each wine region has a different wine sized barrels with different names also coming from different types of oak.
Yeast is the magical ingredient that turns grape juice into alcohol. There are a lot of natural yeasts found in nature and even in the cellar which will start the fermentation. But due to the unreliability of these yeasts, commercial yeasts are generally used for a more consistent, timely fermentation . The way a winemaker chooses to use commercial or native yeasts will affect the wine's flavour, style and body. Native yeasts - used in Spontaneous fermentation may take their time but are believed to create a more complex ( flavoursome) wine with more rounder, smoother body and a what is considered to be a true unique representation of terroir on the wine.
Personally, many of the winemakers I visit on tour believe in this more authentic, slower, natural approach to making wine. I do find wines have a fuller more interesting flavour and silkier, rounder mouth feel.
4. Terrior ( Climate & Soils)
Terroir is one of those mysterious French wine words. But at its heart it talks about the area a grape grows in. This wine influencing principle could deserve its own blog post as there is a lot to unpack here from soil topography, amount of sun, direction to the sun, elevation, temperature etc... But essentially the place where a vine lays its roots becomes a product of its environment. Some times just a matter of 100 meters across a vineyard of the same grape will produce a difference in the style of that grape based on exposure to sun and slight difference in soil composition.
5. Grape variety
Maybe you're thinking it's odd that this principle comes so late in the mix? I don't think so. The place you grow wine and the approach to how you grow it will have as much impact as the grape themselves. In "old world" wine regions place of origin is again key to defining the type of grape/wine that is commonly found there because the place is well suited to growing that variety. And sure while grape varieties have migrated to new homes... A German Chardonnay is usually different to one from Burgundy and definitely different to that of California because of climate, terroir, traditions and wine making approaches.
So bringing it back to Germany... what grapes varieties can you expect?
The king fo grapes Riesling in all its glory. And yes I don't think you can ever have enough. But, Ill use this chance to highlight some other lesser known local varieties. Sylvaner is common variety found in Rheinhessen and Franken. It has a similar flavour profile to Riesling but with always milder acidity. Scheurebe which has grown recently in popularity has similarities to more floral tropical Sav Blanc.
There are also many more influences which I could go into... Organic/Biodynmic wine, Difference in Vintage (years) & ageing effects on wine, Natural wines... But already these 5 deeply rooted wine principles can lead you deep down a wine fuelled rabbit hole if you choose. For me the best way to experience and appreciate a wine is at the source. So by seeing the vineyards and the winery and by tasting the wine in comparison on a vertical tasting. These are all things I aim for my wine loving guests to experience on tour. Zum Wohl