Friday, February 22, 2008

A Wine Primer Part 2

As I mentioned before, wine comes from grapes. Grapes are a plant. Some of you might eat grapes. These grapes are usually not the same grapes you make wine out of.

My point is, grapes are a fruit that grows from the ground. They're a surprisingly hearty fruit that grows well in some of the most intimidating landscapes in the world.

And as we've learned, virtually every wine-making grape varietal is the exact same species. Vitis vinifera is very prone to natural mutation. In fact new research has suggested that all white grape varietals come from a single vine that had a rare mutation of two genes.

What I'm saying is, even though they're all the same species, the cultivars are strikingly different. Different grapes have different characteristics, properties, and as a result certain grapes grow phenomenally well in some areas and grow for shit in other areas.

What are some general rules about grapes?

Generally speaking, cold climates produce white wine. Germany, Austria, and Alsace produce almost exclusively white wine, the red wine production limited to pinot noir and other thin-skinned early ripening red grapes. Why is that? Most red varietals ripen much later than white varietals, but colder climates have a much shorter growing season and wines like zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon would be painfully underripe if harvested before snows and frost freeze the grapes on the vine. Additionally, acidity (a product of near-underripeness) is a characteristic that is immensely appealing in most white wines but is not desirable in most red wines. Conversely, overripeness is almost universally deplored in quality white wines but if properly controlled in certain red wines hints of extra ripeness can be beneficial.

If something like a riesling grape is planted in southern Italy, the grape would ripen fully too early and be rich, overripe, grapey, and cloying. If a pinot noir is harvested too soon, it will be tart, bitter, and generally crappy.

Certain grapes grow better in certain regions because of how compatible the grape's development schedule is with the climate of the region.

So yeah, think about climate when you think about wine. If it's a cooler climate, think acidic white wines like riesling, gruner veltliner, pinot blanc, and chardonnay, as well as pinot noir, and some other red grapes you probably have never heard of like Dornfelder and Schiava. Sparkling wine will generally come from cooler climates as well. Warmer climates think rich ripening reds like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel (a wild card that also likes some cooler climates), tempranillo, as well as Rhone and Italian varietals.

Really hot climates (eastern Australia, California's Central Valley, parts of southern France, chunks of Spain, southern Italy), think cheap, ripe, inoffensive, and innocuous wines with little character and complexity.

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