Learn about wine

1. What is wine?

By Ben Greene

Looking at the statistics now, I can see that Roberson currently stock 2,662 different wines. The shelves around us are laden with bottles, many spilling over into their neighbours’ racks, and the cellar is stacked six feet high with cases stamped with the names and addresses of wineries from Australia to Austria, the Loire Valley to the Lebanon and everywhere in between. The geography is bewildering, and the tiny variations seem endless. Where to begin?

The dictionary definition

With a cacophony of winemakers proclaiming their individuality ringing in your ears, it is easy to forget that the dictionary definition of wine applies to all of them: wine is fermented grape juice. Variations large and small abound, but all wines share this in common – at some point grapes have been crushed and the juice allowed to ferment, turning the sugar in the juice into alcohol, and so the juice itself into wine. Of course, if that was all there is to it, you wouldn’t be reading this, and Roberson would be a cheese shop. In so far as it goes, however, it is a useful thing to be reminded of when the hype around the latest Spanish cult wine threatens to overwhelm, and it is one answer to the question, “What is wine?”

But what else is wine, if it’s not just fermented grape juice? Why is there such variety? Why are whole shops dedicated to its variations and whole books written on tiny aspects of it? What makes it such a rich field of study in a way that doesn’t apply to (say) lemonade or vodka?

What makes wine special?

One answer (and here we are talking about “fine wine” – wine that aspires to be more than a simple drink), is that wine is an expression of place and time – a snapshot of a particular vineyard, and the work of a particular winemaker in a particular year. And because it is capable of developing over time, gaining complexity, settling into a glorious harmony, and then a slow and graceful decline, it tells its story in different ways as it ages. It is both a living and evolving thing and rooted firmly in a particular world.

Of course, there are many other possible answers to this question. Wine is an accompaniment to food, a drug, a refreshing drink, a status symbol, an investment, a commodity. It is many things to many people, but this combination of a sense of place and time is its unique trick and the overwhelming source of its fascination.

The key to flavour

So wine is fermented grape juice and it is the product of a piece of land, a winemaker and the weather in a particular year. These three factors yield endless variety from the simplest of ingredients. But the overwhelming factor in deciding the flavour of most wines is none of these things. Most of the flavour is decided by the grape variety. These are the building blocks of a wine, and more than anything else will tell you what any given bottle is going to taste like.

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