Friday, September 14, 2012

What Makes One Wine Different from Another?

In my Wine Tasting and Food Pairing 101 class, I’m often asked this question, and it’s a good one.  It gets to the very heart of what wine is all about, and why it’s so amazing.  How is it possible that simple fermented grape juice can produce so many wildly different tastes and styles?

There are 3 main factors:

1)     Type of Grape

Each type of grape has unique physical characteristics (such as thickness of skin, acid content), growing requirements (amount of heat, sun, water, and time needed to full ripen), and aromas/flavors (strawberries? black current?  lemons?).

Most of the wines in the world are made from what are known as the international varieties.  These grapes have proven over hundreds of years that not only do they make excellent wine, but they can grow in a variety of regions all around the world, and retain certain signature qualities no matter where they are grown.  International varieties include 3 reds (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon) and 3 whites (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay).  Sometimes other grapes are included as well, but these are the big 6.

Though each of these grape varieties will express somewhat different characteristics when grown in different places (as we’ll see in #2), they will also retain key elements of their identity.  For example, a Sauvignon Blanc, whether it’s grown in France or New Zealand, will have its signature acidity and herbaceous or vegetal quality.  (Each of these 6 grapes will be profiled in detail in future posts.)

2)     Climate/Region

Wine growing regions around the world are extremely diverse.  Some are chilly and rainy, like the Bordeaux region of France or the state of Oregon.  Some are hot and dry, like most of Australia, or eastern Washington State.  Some have high altitude, like Mendoza in Argentina.  Some are hilly with steep slopes, like the Rhone Valley in France.  Some are flat, like central Spain.

These international varieties of grapes have proven they can grow in all kinds of places (though they each have their preferred conditions in which they perform their best), but these different climates alter the final product.  Wine made from grapes grown in a cooler climate tends to be lighter in body, higher in acid, lower in alcohol, and more earthy than fruity in flavor.  Wine made from grapes grown in a warmer climate tends to be the opposite – heavier in body, lower in acid, higher in alcohol, and richer in fruit flavor. 

To continue the Sauvignon Blanc example, if it comes from a cooler region (such as Bordeaux), it will express more of its vegetal qualities and high acid.  If it comes from a warmer region, such as California, it will express fewer vegetal aromas, its signature gooseberry flavor will be more apparent, and it will be lower in acid.

3)     Winemaker Choices

During the fermentation process, the winemaker has many choices to make which will determine the final character of the wine.  Should it be sweet or dry?  Still or sparkling?  Oaked or unoaked?  These decisions may be driven by the quality of the grapes when they reach the winery, the preferences of the winery’s customer base, or the winemaker’s own preferences. 

Additionally, some winemaking regions allow the winemaker to alter the sugar (or potential alcohol) levels and acid levels of the grapes, though this is not done in the best regions or to the best wines.

Keep in mind that decisions made in the vineyard before harvest time have already had a significant impact on the characteristics of the grapes, before they even reach the winery.  We’ll talk about those in a future post.


Here’s a handy reference chart:



Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Opaskar
All rights reserved.

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