Grapes: The fruit of the vine determines the wine

But before the wine comes the grape, its characteristics predetermining the style and quality of the wine. 

 Grapes. (photo credit: BASTIEN RUHLAND/UNSPLASH)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Most of us associate wine with romance, roses and moonlight, and tender memories of youth. Wine has been praised by poets and lyricists since time immemorial, never more lavishly than in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“A book of verse beneath the boughA jug of wine, a book of verse and thouBeside me singing in the wilderness –Oh, wilderness were Paradise enow.”

 (FROM L) A mead flavored like a vermouth – another original creation from winemaker Drory; Agur’s Rosa, Kessem and Layam.  (credit: Agur Winery, NADAV ARIEL) (FROM L) A mead flavored like a vermouth – another original creation from winemaker Drory; Agur’s Rosa, Kessem and Layam. (credit: Agur Winery, NADAV ARIEL)

But before the wine comes the grape, its characteristics predetermining the style and quality of the wine. 

We owned 20 dunams of vineyards at a moshav near Latrun, and the work was never-ending: planting, pruning, staking the vines on taut wires, spraying, weeding, picking. We grew two kinds of grapes, both seedless: black California Flame, and small light green ones known in Israel as Thompson’s Sultanina.

There are nearly 300 varieties of wine grapes grown all over the world. Some of the most famous are the red merlot of the Bordeaux region, gamay of Beaujolais and zinfandel of California. The best-known whites are chemin blanc of the Loire Valley, pinot gris of Alsace, and German varieties silvaner and muller thurgau. The Italians grow popular varieties like sangiovese of Chianti and nebbiolo of Piemonte. Australia, whose wines are now taken very seriously, grows Shiraz, grenache and cabernet sauvignon for fortified red wines. Its most prolific wine grape is Doradillo, and for its white wines it grows Thompson’s seedless from California and muscatel of Alexandria.

“Viticulture” is the name given to growing grapes for wine. The term “wine tasting” is a misnomer, because experts say that you cannot detect flavor while drinking wine. They treat wine with great respect, and bring three senses into play – sight, smell and taste. The first step in tasting wine is to examine the color and condition. The color comprises hue and its density. Hue is the actual shade – red, yellow, brown; and density is the concentration of that hue. To appreciate the nuances, tilt the glass over a source of light or a background like a piece of white paper. Examine closely for the final subtleties of color. If it is cloudy, it could indicate an undesirable presence of protein or bacteria. Sediment and shades of brown can signify a wine oxidized or past its peak.

Nosing a wine lets you detect the flavor by smell. Rotate the glass, letting the wine rise up the sides and release its aroma. Just a few swills can let you detect the age (its freshness and the extent to which the bouquet has developed); the grape variety (e.g. the “blackberry” scent of cabernet and sauvignon, the “sweet” smell of grenache.) Experts also know how to test volatility – the size of a wine’s “nose”; quality – the absence of faults such as substances the wine may have come in contact with, like rubber hoses or concrete fermenting tanks. Poor winemaking could also result in excesses or oak, acid, sugar, tannin or greenness.

The palate refers to the detection of flavor while the wine is in your mouth. The nerve endings or taste buds on the lips, palate and tongue all come into play. Sweetness is detected at the tip of the tongue, sourness at the sides, salt behind the tip and bitterness at the back. Most tastes are actually smelled. The volatiles are detected in the upper nasal cavity while the wine is in the mouth.

A friend of mine, unused to the ritual of wine, was taken to a sophisticated restaurant in Paris. The wine waiter offered her the cork before pouring. With no idea what to do, instead of ‘nosing’ it, she hesitantly licked it – the waiter nearly fainted. So if you’re ever in such a situation, the correct order is first to examine the color, then nose or sniff and finally take a sip and test it on your palate.

There are many kinds of wine and most people know the rule: red wines with meat; white wine with fish. We should also know that a dry wine stimulates the palate, a sweet wine satisfies it. An acid wine will taste very sour if drunk after a sweet wine, and when a light wine is drunk after a full-bodied one, the former will seem thin and lacking in character. Dry should be served before sweet, light before full, young before old.

Until quite recently, when a friend introduced me to the pleasure of fine wines, my repertoire was limited to sweet kiddush wine on Shabbat. I am very grateful to him for adding a pleasant dimension to my dining. Of course, there are also terrible wine snobs. I once entertained an overseas guest who seemed a real connoisseur, so I splurged on an expensive Sauterne to serve him. He considered the color, examined the bouquet, pondered the palate, and spat out the wine, declaring: “Brilliant! I could imagine no better Sauterne. Such flavor, so complex and so perfectly balanced.”

“So why did you spit it out?” I asked, very offended.

“Oh, I hate sweet whites,” he replied.

Wine, of course, need not be made just from grapes, but from a variety of fruit: apples, apricots, bilberry, blackberry, gooseberry, pineapple, rhubarb, prune. You can even make it from flowers and herbs such as carnation, cowslip, dandelion, elderflower, honeysuckle, primrose, rose petals and barley, rice, fennel, lemon thyme, sage, sycamore, ginger, honey (mead) and vanilla.

The wine I remember with the most affection is sloe wine, maybe because I associate it with the golden years when I was 19-22. I lived in London then, and went for country weekends to Buckinghamshire. On Sunday mornings I would walk along the banks of the River Ouse, collecting sloes from the vines, which my hostess would later make into sloe wine. I have never tasted it since, but if I could inhale the fragrance and taste that bitter-sweet, wonderful flavor, I would remember what it was like to be 20 again, filled with hopes and dreams. But as the poet Ernest Dowson wrote:

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses;Out of a misty dreamOur path emerges for a while, then closesWithin a dream.”  ■

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]