Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What is Wine Made From: Stating the Obvious (or am I?)

You may think you actually know the answer to this question.  Most people would say grapes or some other fruit.  The truth is, wine can be made from just about anything.  Amateur winemakers especially like to experiment with uncommon ingredients and there are numerous wine books that will give you “recipes” on how to do so.

I have tasted and/or judged such wines as rose hip, rose petal, dandelion, tomato, potato, elderflower, garlic, onion, jalapeño, pecan leaf, and even marigold wine, among others.  On one judging occasion at a county fair, a fellow judge and I were given what was classified as the “novelty” category to judge.  This is where they put wines that did not fit into any other category.  In the flight (line-up) of wines was the jalapeño wine.  I had the forethought to smell each of the wines first and, when I encountered the jalapeño wine, I decided to put it at the end of the flight.  When I heard the judge next to me scream upon tasting it (he had not saved it for last), I knew just exactly how wise my decision had been. 

Years ago, a neighbor of mine decided that, if you could make wine from dandelions, you could make it from marigolds.  The color was, of course, gold, much like Galliano, which is an anise-flavored liquor that is used when making Harvey Wallbanger Cake – a very easy to make and delicious cake from years gone by.  If you have ever gardened, you probably know that a trick to keep the rabbits away is to plant marigolds around the garden because of their unpleasant smell.  Alas, the aroma of the marigold wine, not surprisingly, was the same as the odor of marigolds.  Needless to say, this wine was not a big hit.  Now you may also know that putting containers of beer in the garden will take care of slugs.  I have often wondered if this marigold wine would have taken care of both problems.  Unfortunately, I never got to try out this theory.  In any case, types of wine you can make are constrained only by your imagination.  The trick is to add enough sugar and the proper acid (more on this later).

Most commercial wines, however, are indeed made with some species of grape or some type of fruit or berry.  I say “most” because there are commercially made and sold wines out there that are a bit more unique.  I know of a garlic wine that is made in California and one from Virginia that is a combination of apple wine and pepper wine.  The rule as far as the Federal government is concerned is that it just needs to be over 7% alcohol.  There are also special forms and permits that need to be filled out for some of these specialty wines.

There are several species of grapes from which wine is commonly made.  The most often used, by far, and considered the true winemaking grapes of the world, are the vitis vinifera, which include such grapes as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Syrah, and many, many more.  Vitis vinifera grapes tend to be smaller grapes with many seeds.  While they are very tasty when fully ripe, the seed content is a bit much for me, as they are for most people, which is why seedless varieties have been propagated or developed for eating.  Seedless grapes bought in the grocery store, for the most part, are vinifera grapes.  However, these varieties are generally not deemed suitable for commercial winemaking due to the large size (low skin to pulp ratio), difficulty of extracting juice and, in particular, the bland flavors.  One of the most common table grapes found in grocery stores is the green grape, Sultana, which is more commonly known as Thompson Seedless in the United States.  Having stated that these grapes are not really suited to winemaking, I will clarify that as “fine winemaking”.   Thompson Seedless is used in inexpensive jug wines as an “extender” to create a larger volume of wine.  Because of its neutral character, it can be used for this purpose.

Interestingly (and confusingly) many of these vinifera grapes are called by different names in other countries.  For instance, what is called Syrah in most countries is Shiraz in Australia and South Africa.  Likewise, what most call Pinot Gris is known as Pinot Grigio in Italy.  Some names are much more obscure than these, like Merlot, which is called Medoc Noir in Hungary and Chardonnay, which is called Weisser Clevner in Germany.  A good ampelography book, which is a book that deals with classification of grapevines, would be of great interest to those of you who would like to know more on the subject of grape names in various countries.  The book, Vines, Grapes, and Wines by Jancis Robinson is a wonderful source of information that includes just about everything you ever wanted to know about vitis vinifera grapes (as well as some information on other species), including where they are grown, history, maps, characteristics etc.  I have been using it as a reference guide for many years.  Unfortunately, this book is only available as a “used” book.

The origin of vitis vinifera grapes is the Mediterranean region, central Europe, and southwestern Asia, from Morocco and Spain north to southern Germany and east to northern Iran.  I believe some variety of vinifera is grown in every country in the world at this point.

When Europeans came to the new world for the first time, they were delighted to see grapes growing here.  However, the flavors and character of the native American grapes were far from what they were used to and so vines were brought to America by Europeans to be propagated here.

Next Week: Going Native

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