The grape variety used to make wine influences its taste. Get to know these varieties and wines, and you will have a much better understanding of what’s in the bottle.
It is impossible to put a definitive figure on the number of varieties of wine grape in the world – Italy alone boasts more than 1,000. However, the majority of the wines imported into the UK, where, ironically, we grow some of the more obscure ones, comes down to a surprisingly small number.
In the new world, and parts of the old such as Alsace, you’ll usually find the name of the grape on the label, but in most of France and Spain, the name of the region takes precedence. It helps to know that Chablis and white Burgundy, for instance, are both made from chardonnay. When listing a wine, we include as much information as we can about the varieties from which these wines are made.
Each variety has its own distinct character and part of the fun of getting to know them is choosing a word which precisely describes the smell and taste of a particular grape. Although personal impressions vary enormously, a number of common responses are recorded by tasters, for instance pear-drops or gooseberries for sauvignon Blanc, or blackcurrant for cabernet sauvignon. Our Grape Varieties includes the most widely-used of these.
VINEYARDS AND VINIFICATION
Climate, altitude and soil composition all have a part to play in determining flavor.
A few extra degrees of warmth can introduce more exotic, tropical flavors. Altitude promotes higher acidity, which also affects taste.
There can be significant flavor differences between the same varieties grown in different parts of the same country, especially if a number of different latitudes is involved. Vines cooled by sea breezes ripen more slowly and evenly than those on hot, insulated, inland vineyards. All these factors have a profound effect on flavor.
The concept of ‘terroir’ is important to grasp, as it is central to an ongoing debate as to how much of the distinctive character of a wine stems from the specific environment in which it grows.
Terroir’s literal meaning is ‘soil’ and in broad terms, the word refers to a regional, or even a particular vineyard character which ‘sings’ in the wine, and represents the combined effects of soil and other factors such as climate and exposure.
More specifically, some tasters swear they can taste, for example, slate in a glass of Mosel, or flint in Chablis.
There is no conclusive scientific evidence as yet to support the notion that a patch of earth could make its presence so acutely felt in the glass, but there is general agreement that certain vineyard sites do have tangible characteristics which it is possible to spot despite vintage variations.
On the other side of the debate, the shrinking world and the ‘flying winemaker’ have made it possible to produce wine in a particular style, irrespective of its origins. Some branded wines, for which consistency is very important, rely on the increasing ability of technology, including special yeasts and fermentation techniques, to create uniformity of flavor despite the vagaries of vintage or even variety. In many evolving wine regions, expertise from abroad improves and raises the profile of local wines, but in others serves purely to create international appeal.
The vanilla aromas, and toasty flavors which are present in wine which has been fermented and/or aged in a barrel are instantly recognizable.
The mighty oak has always been associated with wine production from quercus suber, the bark of which is used to manufacture cork, to the many species of coopering oak which fall into two groups: European or American.
Within these broad categories are several regions of production, each with its following, and each different, as befits a natural product. To complicate matters further, the inside of a barrel is finished by firing, on a range of lightly toasted to charred, all with their own effects on the wine which will be stored in them. Two more things to consider are the age of the barrel, the intensity of which decreases with time, and its size. Very large barrels influence texture more than taste so that wines fermented or aged in them may display more subtle effects of oak, such as a creaminess of taste, or roundness of texture.
The investment of a producer in wood can be enormous, as in the case of premium wines, including the top châteaux of Bordeaux, which use only new wood. At the other extreme, the use of wood chips to flavor everyday wines provides a quick and inexpensive fix, at around 5% of the cost of a new barrel. The winemaker’s decision is not, however, based only on price. Some grape varieties are better suited to oak than others, and vintage characteristics also have a part to play, as does wine style. The differences between a gently oxidized tawny port, aged entirely in cask, and a deeper-colored, fruity vintage port, aged in bottle, are striking.
If oak provides an enormous range of options for the winemaker, for the wine drinker it is very much a matter of personal choice. With practice, it becomes easier to separate these different elements, and to evaluate the degree of oak which is acceptable to your own palate.
TANNIN AND ACIDITY
It’s important to recognize the presence of tannin in wine, which gives a clue both to the wine’s potential longevity and, in some cases, to the grape variety from which it is made.
Tannin is found in the skins, stems and pips of grapes, as well as in wooden barrels. It is a vital preserving ingredient which must, nonetheless, be handled intelligently to keep it in balance with the other elements which make a fine bottle.
Some grapes are low in tannin, others improbably rich. For example, the tenant of south-western France has extremely thick skin and five pips per grape, rather than the more usual three. There is much that the winemaker can do to minimize the effects of excessive tannin, including ensuring that the grapes are fully ripe before picking, removing stems and even pips before fermentation. For wines intended to be drunk young, micro-oxygenation techniques may be used to coax tannin and pigment molecules in the grape skins to form the long, delicate chains conducive to softer wines, a process which would normally take a long maturation period.
Whether a wine is to be aged for many years, or enjoyed in its youth – for a briskly tannic young red can be exceptionally good with certain rich foods – the important thing is that any tannin present should not overpower the fruit. Green, unripe tannins taste unpleasant in a young wine and rarely improve with age. Ripe, well-managed tannins, on the other hand, often evoke tasting terms like ‘silky’ or ‘harmonious’.
The level of natural acidity in grapes varies considerably, not only from variety to variety, but from region to region. The presence of acidity is what turns alcoholic fruit juice into a refreshing glass of wine but the key word, again, is balance. The shrieking sharpness of unripe grapes is hard to tame, while a wine lacking in acidity is at best flabby and at worst, unpleasant. Good acidity, which helps inhibit the effects of harmful bacteria, among other things, makes a wine taste racy, fresh, and even mouthwatering.
As wine gets older, it changes dramatically in taste. Harsh tannins polymerise and soften, brash acidity and raw alcohol interact to form compounds called esters, and primary fruit flavors evolve into complex bouquets. When mature fruit and alcohol are in balance, the wine can be said to have reached a platform of drinkability, which may last for a number of years. At the end of this period, the wine is at the end of its useful life, and should be drunk up before it begins to taste dried out, or spirit.
There are often strict laws governing the ageing of wines before they are released. A gran reserva Rioja, for example, must be aged for a minimum of two years in cask and three years in bottle before it is released for sale. Once these legal requirements have been met, the question of when to drink it is less straightforward. Our aim at The Society is to release a wine in which the different elements have, in our view, reached a degree of balance and harmony which makes it universally palatable for a period of time. We base the calculation of a drinking window on information from suppliers and our buyers’ many years of experience and regular tasting.
Our drinking dates tend to be conservative, taking into account the many diverse storage options used by members, from temperature-controlled cellars to cupboards under the stairs.
Taste being subjective, some palates respond more warmly to youthful charm than mellow (or potentially crusty!) old age. French wine drinkers, for example, are known to enjoy their Bordeaux in the bloom of youth, while we British tend to favor the other extreme of the Claret life cycle. On the other hand, very mature Champagne, although loved by some, is not to everyone’s taste. It’s not a question of right or wrong, but of making informed decisions about when to uncork a wine bought, for example in primeur, or whether paying a premium for an older bottle is worth it to you.
An ideal tasting temperature is not necessarily the right one for serving, although the principles are broadly similar: it is important not to over chill white wines, which masks flavors (and faults), or to allow reds to get so warm that there is any danger of evaporation.
Aim for not more than 10°C for lighter whites, 11-15° for more full-bodied whites. Medium reds should not be served above 16°, while fuller reds are best between 16° and 19°.
Remember that all wines quickly warm up with aeration, central heating, and the presence of enthusiastic humanity. Restore order, if necessary with a thermal jacket like the Rapid Ice, or an ice-bucket, both of which are faster than a domestic fridge.
ORDER OF SERVICE
In general terms, good rules to follow are:
- White before red
- Dry before sweet
- Young before old
- Light before full-bodied.
By The Wine Society 1874