Volume 10, Issue 2: Poetics
Wine is quite a miracle. It's something like the birth of a child. A man and woman mix and then create a being wholly distinct from themselves, yet with deep family traits—new and yet the same. A ripe grape contains two parts, unmarried—an interior sugar juice and an exterior skin full of yeast. But if you marry and mix these parts by crushing a grape, it will start toward creating wine, a third distinct thing, new and yet the same—a "wine that maketh glad the heart of man" (Ps. 104:15). In meditating on Christ's miracle of creating wine, Augustine lamented that we accept normal wine creation as any less miraculous, for even as water "turned into wine by the doing of the Lord, so in like manner also is what the clouds pour forth changed into wine by the doing of the same Lord. It has lost its marvellousness by its constant recurrence."
From the simple miracle of fermentation, we gain all the wonderful wine varieties of the world. In broadest strokes, wine has been divided into three general groups: table wines, sparkling wines, and dessert wines. Sparkling wines start with the same process of mixing sugar and yeast, a process which produces about equal parts carbon dioxide and alcohol. If you let the carbon dioxide escape, you move down the road of creating normal wine. If you trap that gas, you get sparkling wines, such as Champagne (French) and Spumanti (Italian).
Dessert wines, on the other hand, such as Ports and Sherries, start down the normal path, but then get fortified somewhat artificially by adding other spirits, raising both the alcohol and sugar levels. Port and other dessert wines have many fans, but I don't count myself one of them (an understatement). They lack the natural beauty and mystery of normal table wines, as well as the fact that Ports only got their push as a spite to the French during an English-French war.
The broad category of table wines divides into red and white wines, a difference that does not result from the color of the actual juice of a grape. All wines start out with clear juice. The color enters from the length of time the juice is allowed to mix with the skins. If the time is longer, then you create red wines; if shorter, then white wines.
Red and white wines divide into several major groups. Both red and white wines are now more often named for the particular grape variety in question, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc. Other wines are more generic blends of several grapes, such as Chablis, Burgundy, Rose, etc. For simplicity's sake, this division between varietal (particular grape) and nonvarietal (more generic blends) is found in both red and white wines. Among red wines, the world's favorite varietal has long been Cabernet Sauvignon. The other prominent red varietals are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Gamay. Among white wines, the world's favorite varietal has proven to be Chardonnay, with Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurtztraminer also standing tall. Various mixes and cheats also make the rounds, including such market driven inventions as White Zinfandel, a sugary, cinderella wine invented because Americans used to only like white wines, but California had an abundance of straight Zinfandel vineyards.
Enjoying wine involves experimenting with all its varieties, and the most interesting feature of enjoying wine is combining multiple senses—sight, smell, taste, and touch. We miss out on some of the best parts of wine if we concentrate only on the taste.
Sight: When you take a glass of wine, stare at it for a while before you do anything else. We don't have to be experts to enjoy its color, though color can tell the experts much about many details of the particular harvest, age, etc. Examine the wine from all sides. Is it clear or cloudy, bright or dull? More mature red wines will appear slightly orange along the edge. You can enjoy color best against a white background. Perhaps most important for delighting in the color is to use real wine glasses—thin, clear bowls on stems. Thick or colored or clouded goblets diminish the joy and elegance of seeing wine.
Smell: Then swirl the wine in the glass to release and intensify the bouquet. Place your nose deeply into the glass and inhale deeply and meditate. Supposedly, the human nose can identify up to 10,000 different smells, good and bad. Professional tasters say they learn the most from smell, insights about character, origin, and history. But for the pure enjoyment, aromas connect powerfully with our minds and memory. Notice how much emphasis the Song of Solomon places on the delights of perfume.
Taste: Finally, you can taste the wine itself. Take a sip and let it roll around your mouth for ten seconds or so. Sense it against all parts of the tongue and cheeks. They say the tongue senses four fundamental tastes: sweet, astringency (bitterness), sour, and acidity (saltiness). Our tongue tip senses sweet and salty. The sides of our tongue senses sour and salty, and the back does bitterness, with the center actually being the least sensitive. Try them all and compare wine to wine.
Touch: This also involves the tongue. How does the wine sit? Is it heavy or light, airy or smooth? Temperature plays here as well. Red wines do best at room temperature and not cooled, whereas some whites do a little better cooled. Temperature can greatly affect taste. Some reds accidentally refrigerated can taste like vinegar. Learn to enjoy room-temperature reds.
Many books are commonly available which can provide much more depth. Christ created a high-quality wine, and so we should at least be able to tell the difference as we obey the divine command, "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works" (Eccl. 9:7).