Is All Wine Made From Grapes?
Anish Patel @ 2022-02-14 05:51:30 -0800
What’s in a wine? Wine is a beverage made from fermented fruits. And it’s true — all fruits can ferment. You can make wine from plums, mangoes, lychee, coconut, even avocados. However, you won't find avocado wine at the grocery store or even your local wine store (most likely). Instead, you can expect to find wine made from one fruit and one fruit only: grapes.
Grapes have just what it takes to make a complex wine that can last for years, even decades. The earliest known traces of winemaking come from Georgia in 6,000 BC. Researchers found evidence of winemaking in Persia and Sicily not long after. But it’s likely that wine predates even Georgia and was made independently throughout the world.
This is because fruit naturally ferments, without us having to do anything at all. If the skin of a grape splits open, the yeast on the skin of that grape gains access to the sugar inside. The yeast eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol in a process known as fermentation. Greeks, Celtic tribes, and Romans all made wine and established trade and viticulture all over Europe. Then, when the Roman Empire fell, the monks were the ones who tended the vines all through the middle ages.
Eventually, developments in technology gave winemakers more control over fermentation, allowing them to perfect their process. And that brings us to today, to the glass of wine (hopefully) in your hand.
Not All Grapes Are Created Equal
The grapes used to make wine aren’t the same grapes you buy in the grocery store. Wine comes from a grapevine called Vitis Vinifera, and from that one vine, thousands of grape varieties have been born. From Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, it all traces back to one source: Vitis Vinifera.
The thing about the grapevine is that it really doesn’t need much compared to other plants to grow. It can grow where other vegetation can’t — infertile, rocky, depleted soils. In fact, vines thrive where they have to struggle, digging deep into the earth to find water and nutrients. If the soil is too fertile, the grapevines grow large leaves, blocking the grapes from getting the sunlight they need to ripen.
Fewer nutrients in the soil mean a smaller vine, but it also means that the grape gets to develop concentrated flavors. And that results in a great wine.
Where the Grapevine Grows Matters, Too
Grapevines can only survive between 30° and 50° latitude. Most of Europe, Argentina, Australia, the US, and many more places fall within this range. These are the climates that are fit to support the life of a grapevine.
Vineyards closer to 30° are closer to the equator and, therefore, warmer. These vines run the risk of sunburn, overripe grapes, or drought. The best regions grown closest to the equator are also grown at altitude. Temperatures drop with altitude, creating a balanced environment where the grape can ripen to perfection.
Mendoza, Argentina, is an excellent example of this kind of climate. The vineyards lie at about 33° latitude, but they’re also in the Andes Mountains. The vines are planted between 1,400 and 6,500 feet high, where they’re exposed to cool air that helps them retain their acidity and develop sugar at the same time.
On the other hand, vineyards close to 50° have another set of obstacles to overcome. These areas are cold, some almost too cold for the vine to ripen. Acidity levels are higher, and the grapes can have trouble developing their signature aromas. These areas need other environmental elements to warm the grapes, such as nearby rivers or a mountain slope with lots of sun exposure.
Alsace, France is an example of a climate like this. Alsace lies at 47-49 parallel north, right on the border of Germany and France. Lucky for them, the vineyards are planted in the rain shadow of the Vosges Mountains. This mountain range blocks storms, rain, and hail and traps sunlight. Because of this, Alsace is one of the sunniest regions in France, despite its northerly position.
The Anatomy of the Wine Grape
The anatomy of the grape is what makes it such a great fruit to turn into wine. And without the fermentation process, none of this would be possible.
The grape's skins make a considerable impression (or lack thereof) on the resulting wine. Pigments live on the skin of the grapes, and this color is imparted to the wine during fermentation. Some grapes are more pigmented than others. Pinot Noir, for example, always makes a lightly-colored wine, while Malbec is known for its inky, purple hue.
You can see this for yourself: pour yourself a little Pinot Noir in one glass and a little Malbec in the other. Hold them sideways over a white piece of paper. What do you see? Getting to know the colors of grapes is a fun way to guess what you’re drinking without looking at the label.
The skins of the grape make the difference between red and white wine. Red wine is fermented with the skins. But before white grapes are fermented, the skins are removed. This is why red wine is deeply colored, often more flavorful, and contains tannins.
Tannins are chemical compounds found on the grapes' skins, seeds, and stems. They give an astringent, drying mouthfeel to wine. They add what is referred to as “structure” and texture to the wine. Some tannins are rough and abrasive, reminiscent of sandpaper. Others are soft and smooth.
Wines with lower levels of tannins will taste fresh and fruity, while wines with big tannins will be more drying.
Tannins also act as a preservative. For a wine to age for decades, it has to have high levels of tannins and acidity. Plus, the tannins change in the bottle over time. As they interact with tiny amounts of oxygen through the cork, they go from harsh to soft and integrate more fully into the wine. This is why aged wine is so coveted.
Wines with high levels of tannins that can age in the bottle are made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Tannat. Wines with low levels of acidity that are meant to be enjoyed within a few years of bottling are Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Garnacha, and Barbera.
So much happens in the pulp of a grape as it ripens on the vine. It begins as a flower in Spring. Then, it turns into a small, hard, green ball in summer. Finally, it softens and fills with water. It develops acidity, lots of sugar, and flavor compounds.
During fermentation, the yeast eats this sugar and releases the flavor compounds bound up in it. The sugar turns into alcohol, which, like the tannins, also acts as a preservative.
The pulp also contains the acids that will be in the wine. You can taste the acidity in your wine by taking a sip, swallowing, and then leaving your mouth slightly open. How much is your mouth watering? Is it like you just sucked on a lemon, or is it more subtle? This gives you the idea of whether the acidity level is low or high in your wine.
Grapes naturally have high acidity levels when they’re on the vine. As sugar ripens, acidity levels drop. If grapes are left on the vine for too long, the acidity will all but disappear, resulting in a wine that tastes “flabby.” This word is used to describe wine that tastes a bit flat with no “zing” to it.
Seeds and Stems
Even the grapes’ seeds and stems play a part in making wine. The seeds contain high levels of tannins, as do the stems. They also impart green, spicy flavors to the wine. Some wines are fermented along with their seeds and stems, while others are de-stemmed. It all depends on what flavor profile the winemaker is going for.
What Else Can Make Wine?
All kinds of fruits can make wine, but not all fruits have the right amount of sugar, acid, or tannins to make great wine. But some popular wines aren’t made from fruit. Sake is a traditional wine from Japan that is made from fermented rice. And mead is fermented honey and water.
Looking back on history, it’s incredible that we’ve discovered how to control the fermentation process. Wine is one thing that almost every civilization has in common, and it’s safe to say that fermented grapes aren’t going anywhere.