Q: What did the grape say when summer came to an end?
A: He didn't say anything. He just let out a little wine.
In the sometimes controversial world of adult beverages, the community of wine lovers is often associated with a good deal of snobbery. In a world where "luxury wines" can fetch $50-$100 a bottle and $200 bottles are not unheard of, some snobbery is to be expected, but it is also unfortunate. In the age of antiquity, wine was more associated with happiness than a snobbish fetish. Even today, you will be able to find some surprisingly good (even great) wines in the aisles of your local mega-mart which can be enjoyed responsibly without breaking the family budget.
Fun the Old Fashioned Way
The dawn of civilization occurred when mankind moved from a wandering hunter/gatherer existence and began settling in a fixed location to raise crops. These crops are generally associated with bread making but there is a growing belief in the anthropological community that the earliest villages were more likely to be the home of beer and wine makers than bakers.
Wine making is a natural process which will occur whenever fruit juice is kept under the right conditions. A yeast spore may land and create a colony which consumes the sugar in the juice. The byproducts of this process (called fermentation) are carbon dioxide gas and alcohol.
The effects of alcohol appeared to be a sort of magic to ancient man, so it is natural that he would be willing to give up the freedom of a nomad life to make more wine.
A Product of Nature
Alcohol can also be produced by fermenting the sugars in cereal grains to make beer through a process called brewing. Brewing is a more technical process and usually, has faster and more reliable results. Both methods will result in a tasty beverage with intoxicating effects, but some people are beer people and others are wine people. There is a story in the craft brewing community about a monastery in Belgium which sent several bottles of their spring brew to the Holy See in Rome to find out if it would be alright for them to drink during Lent. The wine-drinking Latins in Rome opened a bottle, took a taste, determined that the monks must be drinking the stuff as a form of penance, and gave their blessing.
Any fruit juice which is acidic but not too acidic, has the right balance of tannins and nutritive salts to support yeast growth, and sugar can become wine, but the perfect combination seems to occur naturally in grape juice. One of the first things that winemakers of antiquity did was select the varieties of grape which were the hardiest for their area, and which formed the most sugar during the growing season. Growing conditions change from year to year, of course, depending upon the weather, which in modern times has resulted in the concept of vintage years. Although creating a fine wine is a time-consuming process, a certain vintage is not preferable just because it is old, but if a certain year had an especially long and mild summer, allowing the grape crop to be even more sweet and healthy, that year's vintage will be considered more valuable.
A concept almost as important than vintage to marketing wine is terroir. Each region of the world where grapes are grown is subject to greater or lesser differences in climate, soil, length of daylight, and farming practices.
Terroir is a French term which shares its root with territory or land. The elements of terroir combine to influence the taste of wines from different regions. It is difficult to say whether the terroir of one region is, in fact, superior to that of another, but the farmers and winemakers from that region would like you to believe it is.
Weather or Not
Location, soil conditions, elevation, and climate do not really change for an individual vineyard from year to year, but weather can vary a great deal. Some who are new to the concept of terroir might be tempted to point out that climate and weather are basically the same things. However, climate is a description of the conditions a region expects over a long period of time, along with other factors, while weather is what is happening at any particular moment. In other words, climate is what you expect and weather is what you get.
One of the best ways to appreciate the weather in a different region is to learn to understand the weather conditions where you live. The conditions you see outside your living room window will vary according to whether you live in the middle of the continent or near the shore of an ocean, whether you are in the middle of a broad plain or near a tall mountain range, or whether you are in the Northern States or closer to the Southern border. These are climatic considerations, of course, but they affect the weather in your region every day.
A personal weather station is a terrific way to begin understanding the weather in your area, and that will lead to a greater understanding of how weather works in the various wine regions of the world.
The fact that you and your neighbors experienced an early frost this year may not seem related to late season conditions in the Napa Valley, but understanding your local weather is a key to appreciating the terroir of another area. Monitoring your local weather for a few months using a system like the Davis Vantage Pro2 6153 or the Oregon Scientific WMR200A Wireless Pro Weather Center is afun yet in-depth weather education for the whole family. Observing how conditions change from day to day puts your finger on the pulse of Mother Nature, and is a key to appreciating the mysterious way the natural world works. Best of all, these systems are easy to install and use, so you can begin learning almost immediately.
Not Sunny All the Time
Although most wine regions are known for their long, mild, and sunny weather conditions, one of the most interesting types of wine is the result of the growing season coming to a sudden close. The German term is eiswein or 'ice wine'. It is in the wine maker's best interest to wake until the grapes have reached their peak maturity when they are the sweetest before harvesting and pressing, thereby having more sugar in the grapes. In some Northern regions, an early frost may set in before the grapes are harvested. Rather than ruining the vintage, the freezing of the grapes concentrates the sugars, resulting in a sweet dessert wine.
The bottling of an eiswein is a rather special event. The vintner expects to bottle a normal vintage, of course. If he plans for an eiswein harvest, he runs the risk of the grapes rotting on the vine. Eiswein may not be on the radar for traditional wine snobs, but it is a special enough treat to be aware of and just one of the ways that the weather rewards wine lovers.
- Although there are many wines which sell for $50-$100 or even more per bottle, there are plenty of very good inexpensive wines available if you are willing to learn how to find them.
- Many anthropologists believe that the dawn of agriculture was not so that early man could make bread, it occurred so that he could make beer and wine.
- Wine is an agricultural product which is made by the natural process of fermenting fruit juices, usually grape.
- Since it is an agricultural product, the weather from year to year has an important impact on the quality of the wine in the bottle.
- Terroir is the concept that products grown in certain regions are unique due to differences in climate, soil conditions, elevation, latitude, and weather.
- Understanding weather is important to understanding terroir because it has such a huge influence on wine.
- Using a personal weather station at home will help you to understand weather in the great wine-growing regions.
- Eiswein is a special product which can only be made in years when an early frost freezes the grapes and concentrates their sugars.