Wine Talk: Ancient magic

Wine was made by man thousands of years ago – and the basic method has not changed.

Ancient wine (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ancient wine
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Wine is an ancient product.
Recently, the oldest winery ever found, dating back to 4000 BCE, was discovered in Armenia. The astonishing thing is that they made wine in the same way as it is made today. Then and now, the only raw materials needed were sweet, and therefore ripe, grapes and yeasts… and that was all. No additives or flavorings. No tricks of the trade.
The benefits of wine are said to have been discovered by accident by a Persian princess who was part of the king’s harem.
Feeling unhappy and depressed at being ignored, she determined to commit suicide.
She spied some rotting grapes that looked poisonous enough, and logically assumed that if she ate them it would surely bring about her end. What she did not realize was that the ripe grapes, with their skin broken, had begun to ferment.
Far from killing her, the first accidental taste of wine revived her and made her feel cheerful. Then feeling totally recovered from her depression, she returned to the king’s favor and spread the secret of the magical properties of fermented grapes. Wine appreciation was born. She learned what we know from Psalm 104: “Wine gladdens the heart of man.”
Wine is an agricultural product. The aspect and terroir of a vineyard, the choice of grape varieties planted, how the vines are trained and pruned and when they are harvested all contribute to the quality of wine produced. That is why viticulturists talk about “growing wine” rather than “growing grapes.”
Grapes were harvested by hand in those days. Today, the older vineyards are hand harvested, but most of the new vineyards are trellised to accommodate the more efficient mechanical harvesting. Once the harvested grapes arrive at the winery, winemaking may begin.
Wine grapes are sweet, flavorful and juicy. Don’t be confused by the misnomer of red or white grapes. There are no grapes that are red or white. The grapes that produce red wines are blueish black in color, and those producing white wines are green, greenish yellow or occasionally slightly pinkish in color. However, to fit in with the prevailing customs, we will continue to refer to them as red and white grapes.
After the juice is extracted by pressing or crushing, it is the totally natural fermentation process that converts fresh natural sweet grape juice, or tirosh, into wine. The white powder that you see sitting wild on the skins of grapes are yeasts. These are little organisms that have a sweet tooth.
When the grape skin is broken or crushed, the natural sugar within the grape is consumed by the hungry yeasts. This produces alcohol, heat and carbon dioxide. The resulting alcohol will be wine. It will surprise you to know that wine grapes are sweeter than table (food) grapes. The extra sweetness is crucial because the more sugar there is for the yeasts to eat, the higher the potential alcohol will be.
The resulting wine’s color, aromas, flavors and sweetness, if there is any, come from the grapes themselves. All the colorful tasting descriptions you may read on the back labels of wine bottles, which I admit can sound like the contents of a basket of fruit, come from the wine itself rather than “essence of forest fruits” or other additives.
The variety and complexity are built in.
What a remarkable fruit the grape is! If the fermentation is allowed to complete its course, you end up with a dry wine. Sorry to state the obvious. Wine is not literally “dry.” However, the term means that the wine is dry of sugar. Hence, the words “dry” and “semi-dry” refer to a wine’s relative sweetness.
If the fermentation is stopped early and you have unfermented sugars left untouched by the yeasts, you end up with a sweet wine. There are rules and regulations for wine production in Israel. For instance, with less than four grams per liter of residual sugar, a wine is considered to be dry. If there is more than four grams per liter, the wine is considered semi-dry (a.k.a. medium dry), and so on.
Basically, the difference between red and white wines is that for reds, it is the grape skins that are crucial for winemaking. The color, tannins and some of the flavor come from the skins. So it is important that the skins of red wine grapes be included in the fermentation if the object is to produce red wine. Therefore, red grapes are crushed before fermentation with the skins but only pressed afterwards.
To get the maximum extraction of color and flavors, the fermentation takes place at a comparatively higher temperature (anywhere between 18º and 30º).
White wines, though, are juice and fruit driven. So it is important to use the pulp and the resulting juice without the astringency that skins would give. Therefore, the fermentation of white wines takes place without the skins, and white grapes are both crushed and pressed before fermentation.
To preserve the delicate fruit flavors, the fermentation of white wine takes place for a longer time than for the reds but at a far cooler temperature (between 7º and 18º).
Rosé wines can be made only from red grapes. Brief skin contact provides the desired color, but the skins need to be separated to ensure that the color does not become too deep.
Whereas in ancient times wine was made in winepresses and stored in amphorae or animal skins, the winemaker of today has a combination of stainless steel tanks, cement tanks and either large or small oak barrels at his disposal for fermentation, storage and maturation. He may use pneumatic presses, cultured yeasts, cold fermentation techniques, but the basic winemaking principles remain unchanged.
By the way, anything with sugar in it has the potential to ferment, and there are many fruit wines. I have tasted some good kiwifruit wine, and pomegranate wine is popular in Israel, but neither of these may be accurately described as wine. The name of the fruit has to accompany the word “wine” in the description and on the label. The only fruit that may be described as merely “wine” without any explanation is a wine that is made from grapes. Therefore, true wine may be made only from freshly gathered grapes.
Winemaking is a combination of agriculture (“growing the wine”), art, science and nature. The winemaker is the chef.
The ability to turn sweet grape juice into a complex wine that can attain great value is part of the magic of winemaking.
The ugly duckling turns into a swan.
The magical and mystical transformation from grape to wine, which has such an exalted status among collectors, connoisseurs on one hand and the church and synagogue on the other, is a kind of miracle. Yet it is the most natural process, and the same recipe has been followed since the dawn of civilization, going back to the time when Noah became the first vintner.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.
[email protected]