Libation (n) – a drink poured out as an offering to a deity.
Wine, the most holy of fermented beverages, used as a symbol of Christs blood and as an offering to the gods almost universally it has long ties with religion. I think this is fitting because wine is very similar to religion. Everyone has their own unique experience with religion building their personal belief system and same is true for wine.
Wine has the potential to excite all the senses and transport you. This is the aim of the most passionate winemakers. For them wine is life there’s no start and no finish it’s an endless journey. Each vintage is unique and their challenge is to work with the grapes to create a wine that is both aesthetically pleasing and expressive of the year. You see wine is alive. It’s living, breathing and has a soul you might say. Some souls are made to be present for a long time, others a short time and still more come and go with the passing of time.
This is why wine is an art and a science. There is a definite scientific side to the making of wine with the interplay of organic molecules within the grapes in terms of acids, phenols, sugar, esters, and alcohol. As well as the biological organisms: yeast, enzymes and bacteria that act as catalysts in creating the wine. As a basic rule healthy grapes make great wine. It is the winemaker however that guides the process. This is where wine becomes an art. One wrong decision and your potentially 100 point wine can turn to vinegar. It takes the wisdom of an experienced winemaker to guide the wine in the right direction and take action when necessary to avoid disaster.
Wine is like a child, in the beginning its possibilities are endless, it has an inevitable rebellious phase at some point (sometimes multiple) but given the proper base and guided in the right direction its potential is unbounded and it can reach limitless heights. As I said at the beginning of this post it is the goal of the most passionate winemaker to create a wine that transports you and your senses into another realm, ethereal, like a death and rebirth.
So what determines the life of a wine you might ask? Well let me tell you, it’s a complex interplay of the many components of wine and it’s environment.
You need acidity, this is going to give the wine structure and protect it from bacteria. Ever tasted a “flat” wine or any beverage for that matter? It was likely lacking an acidic component to round it out. Acid in wine is produced inside the grape and has an inverse relation to sugar. That means as sugar increases acid decreases so you want to make sure you pick your grapes when the balance between sugar and acid is just right.
Now sugar is arguably the most important component of wine. The sugar content of a grape determines the potential alcohol since it is the sugar that yeast convert to alcohol during fermentation. Sugar often takes a backseat in the final product being mostly converted to alcohol but it can be used to soften acid, think an Auslese German Riesling that has a striking acidity contrasted with honey sweetness to balance it out.
Next you need phenols these compounds affect the taste, colour and mouthfeel of the wine. Tannins which are often associated with a tongue drying sensation also impart the colour in wine and are well know for their antioxidant properties. Tannins and acids accentuate each other they are not often found in tandem, one always wins over the other.
Esters give you the olfactory component of wine. The smells of fruits, flowers, earth,minerals and any other attribute come from these resonating compounds that are naturally created in the grapes or pulled from the surfaces the wine has contacted. These chemicals are my favorite part of wine because I am in awe that a plant could create such diverse smells from the selective arrangement of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms… I won’t bore you with the chemistry of it but trust me the next time you have a glass of wine close your eyes and smell it, you’ll be transported.
Lastly you have alcohol, this has the obvious effect of intoxication when it is over consumed but it also affects mouth feel. Alcohol content gives the wine a viscosity which you can feel in your mouth. Visually you can see alcohol content through a wines “legs.” This is a physics principal called the Marangoni Effect which is the mass transfer along an interface of two liquids due to surface gradient tension. Put more simply the tears are created by water (greater surface tension) pulling away from alcohol (lower surface tension).
Now that I’ve put you to sleep talking about my wine science did I mention I have the pleasure of spending this years Southern vintage in the Patagonian desert? It’s absolutely ethereal and the wines thus far are other worldly, they have an energy about them that transports you.
The winery is called Bodega Noemia. They produce mainly wines with the Malbec grape but we have a small vat of Pinot Noir this year. It’s only just started fermenting but it’s absolutely beautiful and I can’t wait to see how it turns out. Today I had the honour of performing the “pigeage a pied” otherwise known as the foot stomp of the grapes which serves to introduce more oxygen and encourage the fermentation.
Thank you for reading my philosophical, scientific and as per usual nonsensical ramblings. I’ve included a photo of today’s foot stomp for your enjoyment.