The Wonder of Wine

9/26/10 Ridge Lytton Springs Bloggers Tasting
fermenting grapes at Ridge Lytton Springs

I’ve been tasting and studying wine seriously for over 10 years now. I take notes, read about it, attend seminars, write about it, and taste over 6,000 wines a year. What still so fascinates me, though, is not the minutiae of a wine’s production or the rich stories that arise as one digs into a particular wine’s origin.

What is intriguing to no end for me about the phenomenon of wine is the sheer unknowable wonder of it. I am constantly in awe of the impenetrable mystery at wine’s core.

Why does wine evoke so much passion in those driven to produce it? In those of us who follow it? In those who sometimes spend fortunes acquiring and cellaring the most sought after examples?

David Niederauer's cellar

David Niederauer’s cellar

How can it be, at times, so inspiring? Occasionally even life changing? How does it interact in such fascinating ways with food, adding a level of depth and completeness to the meals it accompanies? How can it speak so much of a place that it is almost invariably true that the wine from some part of the world goes perfectly with that region’s cuisine?

How can a beverage be so variable, from year to year, from vineyard parcel to parcel, even from vine to vine? How can it be so complex? What makes it so varied in texture, taste, nuance, depth, and in the lingering taste in the mouth?

Even as I study it, daily, trying to fathom what distinguishes one wine from another, one vineyard from another, one maker’s wines of a single year from those of another vintage, I know I’ll never know, ultimately, how it all happens–what can make a particular wine so amazingly good.

Thanks to science, we are constantly learning new things about wine grapes, their biology and chemistry, the origins of certain varieties and the nature of their clones, how to better grow them, control their leafy canopies, and the intricacies of how they interact with soil and other inputs. The more we learn, however, the more it seems we’re just scratching the surface.

For example, how did a one-celled fungus–the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae—come to exist to convert a wine grape’s sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohols, making possible all wine as we know it?

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This is the essential magic involved in turning grape juice into wine. The process has been extensively studied, but there is still so much mystery involved. And how can there be so much diversity in this species of yeast, one of 1,500 types of yeasts, so that different strains of Saccharomyces are capable of generating a different taste profile in the finished wine? It has been estimated that of the 1,000 or more volatile flavor compounds in wine, 40% of them are produced by the yeast.

And what makes wine from a particular place or region so unique? Try as one might, growing Grenache and the other grapes allowed in France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape region elsewhere around the globe—even within France–never yields wine with the allure and garrigue-like herbs and spices of Grenache grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And Nebbiolo grown outside of a relatively small, hillside region of Northern Italy never matches the exquisite complexity and ageability of the grape’s expression as Barolo and Barbaresco.

vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

There are many more examples of this phenomenon—the flinty, mineral quality of Chardonnay grown in Chablis that is found nowhere else; the sweet but scintillatingly acidic Rieslings peculiar to the Mosel; the floral and minerally Viognier unique to the tiny Condrieu appellation; and the complex, aromatic and structured version of Sangiovese Grosso that comes only from hilly Brunello di Montalcino.

Wine as we know it today is the result of a multitude of fortuitous historical, geographical and cultural developments. I regularly try to mention at least the most significant of these when I write about particular types of wines, or wine regions.

On top of these factors, however, are the physical and chemical aspects of what happens in the vineyard, the winery and in our noses, mouths and brains that all combine to generate our experience of any particular wine.

Jamie Goode's The Science of Wine

One of the best and most readable books setting forth our current understanding of these physical and chemical processes is Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to better understand the multitude of factors and choices that go into creating this unique beverage.

There one can learn, for example, about the impact of various types of oak barrels on wine and the importance of just the right amount of sulphur dioxide in winemaking—not too much and not too little—so as to avoid oxidation and the build up of unwanted fungi and bacteria.

Jamie even writes about what science has so far been able to figure out about how individuals process the smell and taste of wine, how our brains make sense of the electrical signals they receive from our tongues and noses.

Ultimately, though, as Jamie readily acknowledges, the more we learn, the more questions arise. And I love his admission that, “Chemically, wine is bewilderingly complex.”

What Jamie doesn’t write about is why a moderate amount of wine makes most of us feel more relaxed and uplifts our mood. Or why, for us wine lovers, some of the most profound and memorable experiences of our lives are related to particular wines, and how they made a moment more special, somehow transcendent, causing us to feel more in touch with something ineffable—ultimately “more alive.”

One can enjoy wine on so many levels—the aroma, the mouth feel, the flavors, the feelings it engenders, the history and lore of it, and now the science too. Yet, like so many of the greatest things in life, there remains, ultimately, the wonder of it.

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