What, exactly, is wine? | TheUnion.com

What, exactly, is wine?

The broadest answer is that wine is a result of a chemical reaction; yeast eating sugar, creating alcohol. Given that definition, fermented watermelons, dandelions, cherries or dirty socks are all the fodder of wine.

None of those items have enough natural sugar to produce wine on their own but if you add enough sugar, well, yeast eats sugar, creating alcohol, producing a fermented beverage. The item itself then becomes the flavoring agent to the fermentation process of yeast eating sugar.

Somehow a 2003 vintage of fermented tennis shoe doesn’t sound all that enjoyable. Should we call that wine? Over the last hundred years we have taken an increasingly narrow view of what wine is, restricting it to the natural juice of fermented grapes.

Fermented honey is called mead, fermented apples we call cider, cherries, raspberries and the like we label as fruit wine, fermented barley we call beer, fermented dandelions we simply call weird. Still they are all the products of fermentation, yeast eating sugar, creating alcohol, with a flavoring agent added.

After first giving each category its due, the definition I use is that wine is the alcoholic beverage obtained from the fermentation of the juice of fresh grapes.

But has that always been so?

Ancient Greece has a well-documented history of diluting wine, primarily by adding seawater. Ancient Greece was famous for its symposiums. The more formal the occasion and the more elaborate the food, the more spices and aromatic elements were added to the wine. The Romans carried on the tradition of flavoring wine.

Hugh Johnson recounts in “Vintage, The History Of Wine” that “Reading Roman recipes gives a strong impression that the seasoning was more important than the primary flavor.” He goes on to describe wines infused with herbs, spices, resin and other flavorings. Peasants and soldiers had to make due with “posca,” sour wine mixed with water.

In ancient times wine was esteemed for its medicinal properties and was attributed curative powers in its own right. But it was also an extremely useful medium for other substances such as herbs and spices. Cato wrote about the curative effect of mixing certain flowers with wine.

Rod Phillips writes in, “A Short History Of Wine,” “In Egypt, wine was prescribed to increase the appetite, purge the body of worms, regulate the flow of urine, treat asthma, and to act as an enema.” He goes on to explain, “It was often mixed with “kyphi,” a concoction of gums, resin, herbs, spices and even the hair of asses, animal dung and bird droppings.”

The ancient Greeks had various festivals celebrating their wine God, Dionysus, where they mixed wine with ivy berries, frankincense, mushrooms and ergot, producing both intoxicating and narcotic effects. In reading the history of wine it seems all to clear that wine was much more than just a beverage obtained from the fermentation of the juice of fresh grapes. Or maybe that was just what the kids drank.

There is no question that ancient doctors prescribed wine as a cure. Hippocrates writes extensively on the relationship on various types of wine and digestion. But by the 17th century the term ‘wine doctor’ referred not to a man of medicine but rather to a man who doctored wines.

Hugh Johnson writes, “A wine merchant was a wine doctor.” Among their remedies were beetroot and elderberries for increasing the wine’s color, lavender, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger for increased aromatics. They rubbed the inside of storage containers with cheese, even added herring roe to prevent fermentation, preserving sweetness. They added both sugar and molasses to aid the fermentation process, increasing the potential alcohol.

Imitation follows success. If a style of wine became popular unscrupulous wine merchants would replicate the wine with any number of additives.

In the early 18th century Port wine was very popular in England. Merchants discovered that thirsty patrons would buy a thin red wine colored with elderberries, drenched with brandy and flavored with dried pimentos giving it a fiery, robust taste, all the while believing it was Port from Portugal.

Adulterating wine with other wine was also a common practice. Throughout history various wine regions have ebbed and flowed in popularity.

Wine merchants discovered that adding wines from different and lesser regions to bolster weak vintages of wines from more famous regions was a cheap fix. Weak vintages of Bordeaux of the 18th century were commonly blended with wines from Spain or even Morocco but still sold as quality Bordeaux.

As a result of excessive squabbles, complaints and adulteration the first legislative action actually came from Portugal in 1761. Sebastiao de Carvalho, a Portuguese minister required the uprooting of all elderberry trees, strictly limited the use of manure in vineyards thereby limiting excessive growth and restricted wine growing to only the best regions.

His mandates predated the French appellation wine laws that would become the standard for the rest of the wine world by 175 years. It was the first attempt to regulate wine.

In the second half of the 19th century France was plagued with a succession of catastrophic diseases. Oidium, downy mildew and phylloxera devastated their vineyards, reducing yields. France was the leading producer of wine, both in quality and quantity. Surrounding countries were gleefully happy to increase production to pick up the supply gap. Italy, Spain and Algeria doubled their output in the years leading up to the end of the 19th century.

As the 20th century started, France was once again ramping up production and Europe was swimming in an ocean of wine. Prices plummeted. As it became increasingly difficult to make a living making real wine there was an ever-increasing temptation to produce fake, adulterated, and cheaper wines. Things were out of control. In 1907 there were protest riots in the south of France.

The French government passed a law providing for a wine census, ascertaining how much wine was actually produced each year. More than that, for the first time they gave “wine” a legal definition. They defined wine as “exclusively from the alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes or fresh grape juice.”

There were a series of legislative acts defining grape choices, regional limits and production methods culminating in 1935 with the French appellation control laws strictly defining and regulating all aspects of grape growing and wine production. It was that law that would become the model law for wine producing nations around the world.

Wine has a 7,000-year history steeped in social, cultural, and religious pageantry but completely misunderstood as a science. The mystery of fermentation, the fundamental building block of wine, was not unlocked until the 1860s by Louis Pasteur. Until then no one had any idea why grape juice turned into wine. Wine was produced, generation-to-generation, in the way the previous generation produced it.

The world of wine changed dramatically during the second half of the 20th century. Wine technology has changed more in the last 50 years and especially in the last 15 years than the previous 7,000 years combined. Yeast eats sugar, creating alcohol. That is fundamental. But what are the modern changes that are pushing at the edges of wine? What is micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis and should we care? Does modern technology make wine better or is it simply a modern way of adulterating a natural product? To uncover those answers I went to talk with Steve Burch, winemaker and owner of Burch Hall Winery of Nevada County. But that will have to wait for the next article.

One final note: A century after the riots of 1907, French winegrowers are once again rioting in the south of France, fighting over declining wine prices, over production and allegations of fraud.

Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at wineonpine@sbcglobal.net or by phone at 530-913-3703.

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