The world of wine is huge, spanning across the globe and thousands of years, and to the casual wine drinker this will seem impossibly complex and difficult to understand. However, the old saying about not seeing the forest for its trees applies here as well. More important than arcane knowledge and exotic terminology is what lies in the glass in front of you.
I have already covered the rational approach to wine tasting, breaking down each wine into it’s basic elements for simpler analysis. Now it is important to understand the why and how behind the wine, what factors contributed to what lies in the bottle today.
To this end it’s important to have an understanding of a myriad of subjects, such as biology, evolution and geography. But barraging you with facts, figures and statistics isn’t the best way to get the message across.
So let me tell you a story…
In The Beginning…
Firstly, we need to understand that wine comes from grapes. Grapes grow on vines. A vine is a living organism, and like all living things it has it’s own evolutionary programming to fulfil its goals.
All organisms need inputs to survive and thrive. For the grapevine, these inputs are sunlight, warmth, water and nutrients.
If a vine happens to be planted in a place where these inputs are abundant, it will think “hey, this is a nice place that I’m in, let’s make ourselves comfortable” (it hasn’t been proven yet that plants can actually think per se, but for the sake of the story let’s roll with it). The vine will grow more leaves, spread itself out and dominate it’s surroundings.
Suddenly, one of it’s inputs become severely limited. In this example let’s say there is a drought, causing a shortage of water. The vine is now thinking “Things are tough, I might not live through this. I must ensure the next generation lives on”. The vine starts to produce brightly coloured berries, all the better to attract birds to consume them and spread it’s seeds.
The vine has served it’s evolutionary purpose – it has grown, thrived and produced offspring to ensure the continuation of it’s species.
Not all vines are fortunate enough to be in a place where these inputs are plentiful. They may be in a place that is cold, dark, dry and has few nutrients. Nevertheless they survive, even if they don’t thrive like their cousins in fairer environments.
This is a good time to talk about sugar.
Sugar is important because that is where the alcohol component of wine is derived from. A special bacteria consumes this sugar, and as a by-product produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. More sugar means higher potential alcohol, and vice versa.
A vine in a place that has plentiful sunlight, warmth, water and nutrients will be able to take these elements together to produce sweeter berries. It behaves as though thinking “this place is great, time to produce some sweet, juicy goodness”.
A vine that lacks these inputs will produce fruit that is less sweet, more acidic. Such a vine might think “it’s dark, it’s cold and it’s forbidding, but I’m a survivor and I’ll live through this”.
What It All Means
Here we have the origin of referring to wines as either “cool-climate” or “warm-climate”. Wines from warmer climates may be higher in alcohol and more full bodied, whereas their cool-climate cousins will likely be lower in alcohol and lighter-bodied.
When you taste a wine, break down it’s components in a rational manner, and follow the logical sequence of this “story”, you can begin to make an educated guess as to the wine’s origin.
Or you can practice this in reverse – look for a point of origin that you feel will produce the style of wine that you enjoy, and start shopping.
Of course, there are various techniques available to winemakers to balance things out if they so choose, such as the usage of oak and early- or late-harvesting, but that is the subject of another article.
PS – Check out my e-book, The 7 Key Wine Concepts, to kick-start your wine knowledge like this post just did.
Read more: The 5 Most Trivial Wine Concepts