Most cultures have some substance that they use to relax inhibitions and induce euphoria. Overindulgence leads to intoxication, the word acknowledging that the substance, whatever it is, damages the body in some way. It is toxic. The most widespread substance that is used is alcohol, and the reason it is so common is probably because it is easy to produce and acquire. Just let some fruit go rotten.
Of course, rotten fruit is pretty nasty, and people are ingenious, and it was soon discovered that fruits and grains and some root vegetables could be made to ferment without first going rotten. In fact it is a yeast that is the agent which facilitates the necessary chemical reaction, which takes in sugars in some form and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Alcohol” when referred to in relation to recreational drinking is ethyl alcohol or ethanol, a substance that has now and then suggested as a fuel for cars.
Alcoholic drinks can be made from practically anything and can contain varying levels of alcohol, from relatively low alcohol drinks like beers and ales, through to wines, which represent the strongest drinks that can be made by simple fermentation and on to distilled alcoholic drinks which contain large amounts of alcohol.
Wine is these days made from grapes, and alcoholic drinks made from other fruits are usually referred to as “fruit wines“. There is an unfair implication that “fruit wines” are not real wines and are inferior to grape wines. While “fruit wines” are generally not as good as grape wines, the reason is probably more to do with the centuries of development and improvements that have gone into modern grape wines than any inherent superiority of grapes as a prime ingredient of wines.
Wines are typically made from the grapes of Vitis vinifera though occasionally other grapes are used, and hybrids of V. vinifera with other species are not uncommon. Wines are classified as either white or red, the colour coming from the colour of the skin of the grapes that were used in the production of the wine. Rosé wines are usually pinkish or pale red and are usually made from red wine grapes. The paler colour results from the removal of the skins at an early stage of production.
There are all sorts of varieties of wine, named after the varieties of grape vines that produce the grapes. I’ve a couple of books on wine which detail the genealogy of grape vines and it is a complicated messy and incestuous family tree. There are stories of skullduggery, stealing, and smuggling. There are stories of cataclysmic crop failures and noble experiments and migrations between countries.
Climate change comes into the picture too. Grapes are grown in areas of southern England where grapes have not been grown since Roman times, when younger and more robust varieties were grown. But the ability to grow grapes commercially in England can’t all be put down to global warming since techniques for protecting vines from frost (the main cause of crop failure in grape vines) have been vastly improved.
Smoke producing machines are used to protect vines from frost and helicopters have been used to good effect too. I’m not sure how these techniques work, but I believe they do. One of the most bizarre protection methods is to spray the vines with water which instantly freezes and cocoons the buds in an envelope of ice apparently protecting them from freezing.
I find this stuff interesting, but the reason people buy wine is because of the alcohol in it, and the reason that they prefer some wines over others is the taste. I prefer red wines, because white wines seem astringent and too sweet. Which is odd because red wines can also be astringent and sweet! Well, maybe I am exaggerating somewhat, but the beauty of the wine is definitely on the tongue of the taster.
When tasters taste wine, they have a problem. Sweetness or dryness is pretty much describable, as is the tannin level, which gives all wines, red or white, its astringency, but when the subtleties of the flavour have to be described, especially to someone who has not yet tasted the wine, then there are issues.
Wines may be described as “fruity” or “full-bodied”, which gives some impression of the experience of tasting the wine. The taster may have to descend to using analogies for further details. To quote from a bottle label : “This wine is fruit driven with flavours of red berry fruit and black cherries….”.
However, if you actually taste the wine, you won’t taste berries or cherries. What you will taste is firstly the major type, red or white. Secondly you are likely to be able to distinguish the variety, for example Pinot Noir, or at least the style for a blended wine. Then you will get the overall ‘shape’ of the wine (robust maybe, or delicate). You will note different aspects of the wine at different stages of drinking, at first hit, in the mouth and the aftertaste. I find that some wines have distinctive phases of this sort and others don’t.
You certainly don’t want to be analysing every sip of every wine when you drink it, but I do try to taste it like above at least on one mouthful, but I don’t always remember to do so. It does help you when you choose a wine in the store though.
To get back to the red berries and cherries for a moment, you may taste a wine and not be able to detect them in your tasting. That’s because, in my opinion, those tastes are not there as such. So what do the tasting notes mean by these comments? They mean that the taster is reminded by some flavours of the wine of some aspects of the taste of berries. A faint echo of the richly complex flavours of red berry fruit echoes in the mind of the taster, and that is all that he has to work with when trying to describe some of the flavours in the wine.
In terms of familial relationships the flavour being described by the taster is not as close as brother or sister to the flavour mentioned by the taster. It’s more a second cousin twice removed relationship, and the taster is not saying that it is the second cousin twice removed, but that it reminds him or her of the second cousin twice removed. So you may think that there is hint of gooseberry in flavour of the wine and for you there are.
I think that the ability to even register some flavours varies from person to person and not just in wine. One person may taste something complex and say “mint”, while another may say “cloves”.
So where does it leave those of us who read wine labels and try to match the description with the label? Well, unless you drink a lot of wine and have an ability to distinguish the flavours that is practised, and have a similar sort of palate to the usually anonymous taster, then the bottle labels or tasting notes don’t mean a great deal. If it says “robust” or “full-bodied” for example, most people would be able to agree, but if it says “hints of gooseberry” you may well not agree that those flavours are there. It might remind you more of apples.