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An interest in wine

If you find yourself scribing a quick note about a wine you particularly liked, reading labels, checking vintages, and pondering which years were good for grapes in a particular place, it is sure you have developed an interest in wine. You are not alone.

Wine, ancient art, modern science, and global business

In one form or another wine production has been carried out for thousands of years. Pottery discovered in Persia (present-day Iran), dated at 5,500 BC show evidence of grape use for winemaking. Jars from Jiahu in China containing wine from wild grapes date to between 6000 and 7000 BC.

But whether ancient or modern, many of the same conditions are required and similar techniques used. The chemistry of grapes is eternal.

Wine grapes grow, with few exceptions, only in bands delineated by latitudes 30-50 degrees North and 30-45 degrees South of the equator. Unlike most crops, grapes don't require fertile soil. The thinness of the soil restricts the quantity of the crop, producing fewer grapes of higher quality.

Paradoxically, soils too rich in nitrogen and other nutrients —highly beneficial for most plants— can produce grapes unsuitable for winemaking. Fine for eating, but lacking desirable quantities of minerals, sugars and acids.

The best wines are produced from soil that would be considered poor quality for other agricultural purposes. The stellar wines from Bordeaux are made from grapes grown in gravelly soil, atop a base of clay or chalk. Fewer grapes are grown, but high in quality. The pebbly earth allows for good drainage — grapevines require access to adequate, but not excessive, water. As the roots reach down further, more complex minerals are absorbed.

Vineyards are most often founded in river valleys, with slopes that provide abundant sunshine. Vines there are most often of the European species vitis vinifera, from which many common wines are made, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Viticulture, the practice of growing grapes for wine, is today one of the most complex agricultural undertakings. A master vintner (today, sometimes called an oenologist), must be an expert in soil chemistry and fermentation, climatology and several other ancient arts and modern sciences.

In addition to categorization by variety, the products of these vines are classified by vinification methods - sparkling, still, fortified, rosé, blush — or by region — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace — and of course by vintage, as well as a dozen other methods.

After the farmer, chemist and manufacturer have had their say, the businessman must take over. In 2002, 595 million gallons of wine were sold in the U.S. alone, representing over $20 billion in consumer spending. France led the pack with 22% of export volume, with Italy a close 20% behind.

The bold artists of wine must possess a sensitive nose and palate and balance dozens of time-sensitive factors such as when to harvest, how long to ferment and age, when to bottle. And that's before considering modern manufacturing and marketing requirements, not to mention legal restrictions.

An art, a science and a business definitely not for the timid.

Wine, storing before pouring

Wine, like anything else, will always change over time. The trick is to control the rate and types to produce desirable changes and avoid harmful ones. The variables needing to be controlled are air, temperature, light, vibration and humidity.

Nothing spoils good wine faster than too much air — it causes wine to age rapidly, oxidizing and losing freshness. Before long you have vinegar. Fortunately it's not necessary to build a vacuum chamber, glass is impermeable to air for centuries and a good cork will keep air exchange to a minimum for years.

Still, there's some air in the bottle to begin with — this is good, since it's essential to a proper aging process — and corks can go bad. Keeping wine bottles stored horizontally helps keep corks moist, preventing cracking or shrinking that admits air.

Storing wine at around 70 percent humidity is important to keep corks properly moistened — too low humidity dries them out, but higher humidity encourages growth of mold and mildew which injures racks, casks and spoils cork tops.

Even more importantly, proper temperature keeps corks from shrinking when too cold and wine from aging too quickly when too warm. In a cellar of 25 percent whites, 75 percent reds, 45-55F (7C-13C) is preferred. Some areas are blessed with natural conditions in this range, but most will need some kind of refrigeration unit. For smaller collections, wine cabinets can be purchased.

Almost as important as the actual temperature is the rate of change. A ten degree change over a season is harmless, but frequent and rapid changes can severely damage wine, even when stored within the desired range.

Not surprisingly, the higher the storage temperature the faster a wine will age. Conversely, colder storage temperatures slow the aging process. Adjust for the type of wine stored.

Along with controlling temperature and humidity, light exposure should be kept to a minimum. Though modern bottles have good UV filters, some can still penetrate — leading to a condition called 'light struck', which shows up as an unpleasant aroma. Incandescent bulbs produce less ultra violet light than fluorescents, so the former are preferable.

Vibration interferes with aging, stirs up sediments and in extreme cases can cause racks to deteriorate faster. Try to avoid moving bottles until ready to be served.

Bottle size plays a small part, since a larger bottle has a smaller ratio of air to wine. Purchase or use larger bottles when possible. Once a bottle has been opened transfer the leftover wine to a smaller bottle if the remainder isn't consumed within a few days.

Wine Aging Table

The following contains some types of wine and the approximate period they should be aged for optimal flavor. In general, more expensive wines are designed to be aged longer. Cheap wines should be driven off the market by not being purchased at all.

Age (from vintage date)
Cabernet Sauvignon medium ($12-$25)
expensive ( > $25)
5-6 years
7-15 years
Merlot medium ($12-$25)
expensive ( > $25)
3-4 years
5-12 years
Syrah/Shiraz medium ($12-$25) 3-5 years
Chardonnay medium ($12-$25) Consume within 5 years
California Riesling medium ($12-$25) Consume within 3-4 years
(estimated cost not up to date)

Wine clubs for every taste

If there's a country somewhere with only one citizen, it probably has a wine club with a dozen members. Once the province of the enthusiast or specialist, wine clubs are now as popular as Starbucks.

Wine clubs are founded for as many reasons as there are founders. Many are started in order to take advantage of group or special pricing available only to members. Others simply want to enjoy the variety that comes with receiving a new and often unexpected, vintage or vineyard every month. And, of course, a great many begin because the members seek the social interaction and the joy from sharing their favorites with others.

With a wine club comes an invaluable source of information about varieties, vintages and wineries from around the world. Clubs in every country exist that are devoted to the wines of that country, and other clubs seek out the new by exploring wines imported from elsewhere. French clubs investigate wines from Australia (though they don't confess it!), and Italians and Spaniards review wines from California — many made by relatives with family ties going back generations.

Some wine clubs are as new as ten minutes ago, others started over 100 years ago. Often the experts that found or join these clubs are equal in knowledge and experience, regardless of the age of the clubs. From these experts comes advice about wine glass preparation, tasting methods or home winemaking tips along with recommendations for the best whites, reds or dessert wines.

There are clubs devoted to the product of a particular winery, often having been started by the owners themselves. These specialists can give early information about their own harvests, so enthusiasts can look forward in the coming years to sampling the finest these entrepreneurs offer. Such clubs will often make certain wines available only to club members and at reduced prices.

One club is even dedicated to those who have sampled over 100 different wines — and the forum discussing the wines is very lively! Each member has tasted over 100 wines, so the total selection ranges in the several hundred, with some overlap.

But at the end of the day, all the clubs provide their members with the expertise and experience of some of the world's most knowledgeable and enthusiastic makers and drinkers of wine. And a mind-boggling amount of material it is.

The ease of sharing information worldwide and almost instantaneously, made possible by e-mail and the Internet, has produced a cornucopia of opinions about every aspect of wine. Debates rage about best vintage, pairing, vineyards, pros and cons of soil and climate types and on and on. Passions around political disagreements pale beside this United Nations of wine.

Fortunately, no wars have recently broken out, (some historians assert the influence of the grape is responsible in part for more than one!), but there are occasional skirmishes. Still, next time you're invited to attend that special event honoring the 'premier' of a new wine, leave the Kevlar vest at home. Just be prepared with some oenological (the study of wine) ammunition — and don't forget, the purpose is to enjoy!

Wine clubs are a good way to further your interest in wine at a reasonable price.

Describing a wine

Wine cellar