Monday, January 22, 2007

Toward Greater Wine Literacy

The Vintner’s Art by Hugh Johnson and James Halliday

There are four main sources of flavor in wine.
• The grape variety.
• The place where it is grown.
• The way in which it is grown
• The winemaking techniques used.

This valuable book is mostly about the last of these sources, although there is a brief nod to vineyard management at the beginning.

You could argue for any of these sources as the primary source of wine’s flavor and could easily produce pairs of wines that support your claim. Grape varieties, like apple varieties, have different flavors. These differences become accentuated when grape juice ferments into wine and produces or reveals its unique set of acids, esters, and other flavor chemicals.

Vineyards have their own flavors, too. Apart from obvious considerations like sun exposure and soil structure, we know depressingly little about how this works. People who own the vineyards that produce the best wines often make a great deal of the unique contribution of their particular patch of ground, and we can hardly blame them. ”Them” in this case is mostly the French, who use the word “terroir” to express this influence. Many of these winemakers consider their mission to be allowing their wine to ‘”express the nature of the terroir” Incidentally, all the possible jokes about “terroirists” have already been made.

The management of grape vines in order to optimize flavor has been a realm of extreme conservativism until recently. Peasant farmers are understandably reluctant to undertake experiments when tradition is recognizeably safe.

Winemaking techniques expand, contract, or radically alter the taste of wine. Some of these alterations – like prolonged contact between the freshly crushed juice and the grape skins or the choice of yeast – are in deliberate service to the flavors they produce. Others, like filtration and pasteurization, are driven by economic considerations and have secondary-and sometimes unfortunate-flavor consequences.

It's the discussion of this last area-a matter often hinted at in other publications-that this book does so well. Taking each of eight categories of wine, the book discusses the winemaking choices that go into producing the characteristic taste of that category. So we have chapters on:

Light-bodied Whites
Wooded and Full-bodied Whites
Light-bodied Reds
Medium-bodied Reds
Full-bodied Reds
Fortified Wines

There is a brief section on the rĂ´le of barrel storage,
but it's far from complete.

The description of winemakers' choices in this book
is clear, extensive and beautifully presented. Delightful
reading for anyone who wants to know where all those
great tastes come from.

--Lynn Hoffman, author of THE NEW SHORT COURSE IN WINE and
the forthcoming novel bang BANG from Kunati Books.ISBN 9781601640005