The Wine-d down on Wine
What exactly makes your wine taste the way that it does?
Whether wine-ding down after work on a Wednesday evening, or sharing a bottle with friends over a lively lunch, there’s no question that wine is one of the most beloved beverages among members of the human race. There are endless varieties and countless flavours to match—but what are the factors that make a wine ‘good’?
The chemical composition of wines are estimated to differ by only around 2%, according to the American Chemical Society. This miniscule difference on paper ensconces the drastic variation in flavour between a glass of cruddy cardboard wine and a delicious fifty-year old vintage; with thousands of flavour notes from coffee to cocoa and everything in between. If we start from the roots of the wine making progress (literally), we get the first clue as to why wines taste the way they do: the soil the grapes are grown in.
That’s right: a lot of the characteristics that make or break a wine come down to the dirt the grapes wines are nourished by. The minerals that a soil contains have a fundamental role in influencing how fruit upon the vines will eventually grow and come to taste, even so far ahead as after the fermentation process. The type of grape grown also naturally has a large impact on the taste of the wine, in addition to the climate of growth.
Once the fruit is off the vine the wine transformation begins with the process of fermentation. This is the most vital aspect of wine making, and the subtle differences in methods form the secrets of thousands of wineries (with their unique flavours) across the world. At face value, the process reads much the same: the grapes are left to age with yeast, which turns the sugars in the fruit into alcohol. Even within this process, though, are intricacies that give wines their individual characteristics. Some winemakers add yeast commercially produced to the grapes, and whilst some utilise the naturally growing yeast on the surface of the grape skins to kickstart the fermentation process, and in some more unconventional cases, bacteria may be used as a substitute for yeast.
Sugar levels within the grapes are the biggest factor in terms of the volume of alcohol within the wine, and thus also influence the taste. Grapes that are grown further away from the equator, particularly in the northern hemisphere have less sunlight exposure than their equatorial and southern counterparts, resulting in less sugar produced (via photosynthesis—a very cool plant process!) and thus less alcohol produced by yeast when the fruits are fermented. Sometimes, producers will counteract this by adding sugar externally, though this can lead to a more ‘cheap’ flavour.
The last big factor affecting the taste of wine is the use of preservatives—after all, wine is made of fruit and will eventually ‘go bad’ if not preserved in some way. An inexpensive way of doing this is by adding sulphur dioxide upon bottling the wine. However, some people are allergic to wine preservatives and drinking this wine can lead to nasty headaches and bad hangovers.
So there we have it—the next time you’re having a whine about a nasty wine, consider some of the aforementioned factors which may just be influencing the taste of your drink! You may just be an enologist in the making!
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