Tonight’s lecture in my “Cultural Appreciation of Wine” class, which is taught by Paul Wagner, at Napa Valley College is a little more technical and a little less cultural than normal.
All about major developments in wine. I’m talking big developments. As in, not small. These are developments in winemaking that fundamentally changed the quality of wine in a very positive way. These are developments that equate to the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel in terms of importance to wine.
The way wine is made has not changed much in the several millennia that man has been making wine.
Yeast ferments grapes
Man drinks wine.
It’s always been that way. In the earliest days of winemaking, man fermented grapes in a hole in the ground and transported and served wine in animal skins. These are things we would think of as making a wine wholly undrinkable, but yet, this is the way it was done for thousands of years. We look at the ancient process of making wine as barbaric, yet, in those days, they were making one of the most important and most valuable commodities of the time. Something as simple as a barrel was a huge advance in winemaking.
BIG advance #1: Wood Barrels.
Barrels were made by the Sumerians, in present day Iraq probably some 5,000 years ago, of palm. These were likely small barrels that didn’t impart much flavor in the wine and with advances in ceramics and pottery, these barrels were abandoned. Amphorae became the preferred vessel of storage and transport. Around the era of Julius Caesar, we find less and less reference to amphorae and early references to wood barrels brought back from Britain. Probably created by the Celts of the region. During the Renaissance period, barrels came into their own as a method for storing and transporting wine. Early barrels were made from wood other than oak. Chestnut was a popular choice, but it did little for the quality of the wine. Oak was found to be relatively easily workable, found in abundance in many parts of the known world and it was strong. Oak imparts complimentary flavors to wine, and in the form of a barrel, can be easily transported and can be manipulated in several ways to enhance wine. Oak can be toasted to different flavor levels and different areas of oak forest can produce different flavors. Combine that with the differences in flavor that different size and age oak barrels give, a wine makes has a nearly infinite number of characteristics a barrel can give a wine.
BIG advance #2: Glass bottles
A bota bag has a certain rustic charm to it. Fill your bota bag with wine and you quench your thirst wherever you take your faux animal skin liquid transporter. The REAL thing was probably made, in ancient times, from the stomach of a goat or cow, or the skin of same. This allowed oxidation of the wine and they probably leaked to an extent. The ancient Romans discovered glass blowing. The quickly found that glass could be made into a bottle and that was a good medium to carry wine. you could see what was in the bottle, air did not impact the wine as much, it was durable and the shape could be made relatively consistent. The problem with glass back then was that it could not be easily mass produced. Eventually, it was discovered that a tightly stoppered bottle of wine matured well and acquired distinctive bouquet. Additionally, the problems of wine degradation from oxidation was significantly reduced. Eventually, a standard of 750 ml was settled on.
BIG advance #3: Cork
in the ancient world, cork had many used. Sandals, fishing buoys, construction of house roofs and for the sealing of small bottles of valuable perfume. In the 1600’s, a French monk named Dom Perignon first used a shaped cork as a wine closure. This was a MAJOR development in increasing the quality of wine. with the advent of glass bottles, and now cork to seal them, it was discovered that wine improved with age. Will there be a permanent successor to cork? Synthetics, glass, and screwcaps have made inroads, primarily due to cost and 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole, or TCA. Cork Taint. This chemical is formed when molds in the cork come into contact with chlorine, which is sometimes used as a cleaning agent for cork. Cork taint impacts a significant amount of bottled wine, but it’s about the best we have and consumers still prefer it. For the time being.
The last two items go hand in hand
BIG advances #3 and 4: Temperature control and Stainless Steel.
Certain varietals lend them selves to a colder fermentation in stainless steel. Most aromatic whites benefit from this type of controlled fermentation. a slow, cold fermentation in stainless steel preserves aromas. It also allows a winemaker greater control over the fermentation process, to the extent that they can stop it, leaving residual sugar behind to sweeten the wine. Without refrigeration, fermentation will complete, making the wine dry. By dropping the temperature, the winemaker can stop fermentation, making a sweet wine. in ancient times, to achieve sweetness, things like sugar or honey would be added to wine to sweeten it.
In the thousands of years and countless small advances that have been made in winemaking, what has really happened, is we understand the process better. We know better what happens in the viticulture of grapes. We know what happens in the fermentation process and we know how to enhance it with commercial, manufactured yeasts. We know better what happens during the aging process and how wine improves with age. With all the knowledge that we have, however, we still haven’t been able to change the fundamental process of:
Yeast ferments grapes
Man drinks wine.
Seems like Mother Nature still has control over the process and she isn’t likely to abandon that control any time soon.
Anthony Blackburn is a student at Napa Valley College in the Viticulture and Winery Technology Department. He is also the Student Sales and Marketing Intern responsible for selling the wines made by the students in the student winery. www.napavalley.edu/winery