WHAT MAKES WINE, WINE? THE BUILDING BLOCKS

For all of wine’s complexity, it is born of something utterly simple: a grape. A grape berry is, by weight, 75 percent pulp, 20 percent skin, and 5 percent seeds (there are usually two to four of them). Pulp is the soft, juicy center of the grape, and is what will become the wine. Mostly water and, after that, sugar, the pulp of a ripe grape contains minuscule amounts of acids, minerals, and pectin compounds, plus a trace of vitamins. It’s the sugar in the pulp that is crucial to vinification, since it’s the sugar that will be converted to alcohol. As for the skins, they get to play the sexy part. They’re largely responsible for the wine’s aroma and flavor, as well as its color and tannin, the compound that makes some wines feel slightly dry and taste bitter (more on this soon). But a bunch of grapes has a way to go before it can be called wine. And once it’s transformed, there will be several components to consider: alcohol, acid, tannin, fruitiness, and dryness and sweetness. These are the structural building blocks of any wine. Let’s look at each of them.


ALCOHOL


Alcohol is a critical constituent in wine, not because of the genial mood it can evoke (although that’s surely part of its charm), but rather because of the complex role it plays in the wine’s structure, and the profound effect it can have on aroma and flavor. Alcohol occurs in wine as a result of yeasts. During fermentation, a yeast cell takes one sugar molecule in the grape pulp and turns it into two ethanol (alcohol) molecules. In the process, two carbon dioxide molecules and some heat are thrown off. (Tiny amounts of a few byproducts are also created. One of the most important of these is glycerol, which gives wine a sweetness and may contribute a slightly viscous, mouth-coating texture.) The more sugar the grapes contain (that is, the riper they are), the higher the alcohol content of the final wine will be.


How does alcohol manifest itself in the wine? First and most important, alcohol determines the body of the wine. Quite simply: The more alcohol, the fuller the body. Thus, high alcohol wines feel weighty on the palate. They are the sensory equivalent of heavy cream, not skim milk. By comparison, very low-alcohol wines are so light in body they almost seem weightless (dry German rieslings are a good example).


Alcohol can also influence aroma and flavor. In a wine with very high alcohol, the aromas of the wine may be masked by the more dominant smell of the alcohol. What we call alcohol’s aroma is actually more of a nasal burn. Put your nose directly over a bottle of rubbing alcohol and you’ll probably instinctively and quickly want to turn away. When a wine has so much alcohol that all you get when you smell it is the burn, the wine is said to be “hot.”


As for taste, alcohol can impact wine in two ways that are negative. First, high alcohol can mask the flavors of the wine, rendering them virtually meaningless because you can’t taste them anyway. Second, a wine that’s very high in alcohol is a wine that has come from very ripe grapes. If the grapes are so ripe they border on raisins, the wine can have a dull, “overcooked” fruit character. In the worst cases, very high-alcohol wines can come with flavors that are so mind-numbing and lifeless, one might as well mix grape jam with vodka and call it a day.


You notice I keep qualifying the alcohol as being “very” high. There is no agreement on what defines this. Moreover, it’s true that the impression of alcohol may be mitigated by a significant level of other components—tannin, acidity, and fruit. All of this said, my sense is that many wine professionals (including me) would argue that once a table wine exceeds 15 percent alcohol by volume, the chances of it being elegant, being reflective of its place, and being distinctive, diminish considerably.


Today, ripe grapes the world over are generally picked quickly and put into small, squat boxes so that the weight of the grapes on top won’t crush or bruise the fruit underneath.


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