What is Wine?

Posted by Keith Wallace

What is wine? Why do I do this to myself? Why do I ask sommeliers this question? Invariably, I get one of the following three answers. Each time, a tiny part of my soul dies.

The Captain Obvious Answer

Captain Obnoxious would say wine is the byproduct of yeast devouring the fructose in grapes. Technically, this is correct. But so is saying beer is the result of maltose fermentation. It makes you sound smart without actually having to be intelligent.

What is Wine? Wine is 85% water, and it has an average of 12% alcohol. This means water and alcohol comprise around 97% of any bottle of wine; the rest is the best part: acids, sugars, pigments, and plant matter that give the wine its color, taste, texture, and luscious aroma.

Captain Wine Snob

The Dr. Imma Snoots Answer

You can see the pottery decorated with pithy quotes in their kitchen. They love the poetry of wine and will tell you how they visited Italy when they were only 20 years old.

Humanity and wine are deeply entwined, they say. But did you know that wine’s evolution, both an alcoholic drink and a cultural asset, goes back thousands of years?

Yes, Dr. Imma. We know

What is Wine? We make wine with grapes, but not all grapes make wine. Only grapes from the Vitis Vinifera family are suitable for making what Galileo called “sunlight, held together by water.”

Dr. Imma Snoots
Sommelier Holding Wine Glass

The Boring (But Accurate) Story

What is wine? Wine is many things. It’s an agricultural product, part of our history, an integral column of our society, and, for wine lovers, a lifestyle. Let me give you a short explainer.

The Professor of Wonksville

Vitis Vinifera vines evolved in the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. People in the region have been making wine with these grapes for 8000 years.

It wasn’t long before merchant civilizations like the Phoenicians found value in the spirited liquid and spread it around the Mediterranean basin. Greeks knew about wine and took it all over Europe; Romans did too, to a greater extent. As a result, Vinifera vines soon populated the known world and adapted to the continent’s distinct climates with time.

European Origins

The vine’s natural adaptation to new altitudes and weather resulted in the birth of different varietals we now know and love. The Iberian Peninsula became home to the ever-popular Tempranillo. The French territories adopted many others like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. With its perfect climate, Italy ended up with a few hundred grape varieties from which we recognize Nebbiolo and Sangiovese as some of the finest.

What Is Wine? Rioja?

The New World of Wines

European colonizers took their grapes to the Americas, South Africa, and eventually to further territories like Australia. As a result, wine became a global phenomenon and is now part of many people’s everyday life.

Grapes need a particular climate to thrive, and not every country can offer it. So Canada, the US, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and even Brazil grow grapes on the American continent. Likewise, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and China became hosts to this adaptable –and lucrative– crop.

Modern Winemaking

Today Spain has the most hectares planted with the vine, followed by Italy and France. The United States, China, Argentina, and Chile are on the list, too, rounded up by Australia, Germany, and Portugal.

Wine can be made in different countries and from different grapes, but that’s not the only difference between one bottle and another. Not all wine is created equal. Most are uncomplicated and easy to drink. It doesn’t have a sense of place or complex aromatics. In California, Ernest Gallo Winery is the world’s biggest producer, and you know their strength is in the supermarket.

What Is Wine?

What is Wine? What is Fine Wine?

On the other hand, fine wine is scarce and commands higher prices. Grape prices vary a lot depending on their provenance and overall quality. A ton of grapes in California can cost as little as $500 or as much as $2,500 for reputable vineyards.

Winemaking can also be industrial and cost-effective, rendering low costs or artisanal and time-consuming, adding to the final bottle price.

Why do some types of wine cost as much as a small car? Well, because the ripest grapes, those that become age-worthy, complex wines, cost quite a lot, and artisanal winemaking, which might include high-end oak barrels, is not cheap either. Add the winemaker’s reputation to the recipe, and you’ve got yourself a collectible bottle of wine for which people will spend top dollar.

What is a better answer?

There are plenty of ways to talk about wine. History, chemistry, agriculture, society, and so many more ways. You answer the question “What is wine” in a way that will most benefit the person asking the question. That is why we run a wine school.

What defines wine?

The definition of wine is a beverage made from fermented grapes. Over 99% of wine is made from a specific species of domesticated grape: Vitis Vinifera.

Is wine alcoholic or not?

Fermenting sugar will result in ethyl alcohol, which is the process that turns grapes into wine. However, it is possible to remove alcohol using reverse osmosis.

What is special about wine?

Wine has been a central part of the human experience for over 10,000 years. Entire civilizations and religions have wine as a central tenant of their beliefs. Arguably, no other food or drink has had this much influence worldwide.

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