Depending on the grape variety, age and cellar technique, white wine has a delicate golden to pale green color at the same time and even more so later. But from the grape harvest to the sparkling wine in the glass is a long way ...
Water is silver, but wine is gold
Wherever a grape berry gives its sugar to the yeast, the result can be called wine. The grape material is initially the be-all and end-all, with which vine researchers experimented in the past with great effort in order to enrich the classic varieties with new crosses. However, wine connoisseurs are quite reluctant to try new varieties, except for the wonderful chassis-tasting Scheurebe and the aromatic Huxelrebe, from which excellent Beerenauslese wines can be made. Even the popularity of the Kerner is waning little by little, and nowadays brave botanists are more and more busy improving the vine material of the classic varieties - apart from the very persistent among them, who set themselves quite audacious goals: The researchers are crossing grapevine classics with the indestructible, healthy, but probably horribly tart original vines that can still be found along the Mississippi and Amur rivers. Perhaps wine research will succeed in breeding a vine that combines the good qualities of both sides, namely good taste and robustness.
Probably only about a third of the way has been covered in this breeding work with the so-called "interspecific varieties" - and because the classic grapevine is a proud 80 million years old and appears in numerous varieties anyway, the description of the most important white grape varieties should suffice here.
The most important grape varieties
Chardonnay, which is closely related to Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, is particularly popular at present. Its fruity aromas and delicate hints of walnut are typical. Chardonnay thrives particularly well in California, even better in Australia and best of all in its native Burgundy. Not everyone knows that the great white growths of Burgundy such as Chablis, Montrachet and Mersault are good Chardonnay wines.
Chenin blanc is considered the most important white grape in the Loire region, where it produces pleasantly fruity and, for the most part, long-lived wines. It also exists in California and in Australia. The variety is sometimes called Pineau de la Loire and is called Steen in South Africa.
Johann Seger Ruland, a merchant from Speyer, discovered Pinot Gris in 1711 in a totally overgrown vineyard - surely as a mutation of the red Pinot Noir. The grape became native to the Kaiserstuhl region as Ruländer, where it produced a fat, golden yellow drink. Subsequently harvested by winemakers somewhat earlier, the wine became fresher, had more pleasant acidity, and was then botanically correctly called Pinot Gris. A Pinot grigio from Friuli is also nothing else.
From which grapes Professor Hermann Müller, a native of Thurgau, crossed the white variety Müller Thurgau more than a century ago, probably remains his secret. Presumably it was two Riesling strains. Müller-Thurgau is also erroneously called Rivaner, but it has nothing at all to do with Silvaner. In Germany, it is considered the main variety and is mischievously called "Ackergold" by winemakers because of its unbridled fertility. Müller Thurgau delivers light, fresh, cheerful drops with a bit of nutmeg aroma. Best locations are Steigerwald, Lake Constance, Tauber and Trentino.
Riesling is considered a leisurely ripening child of the north. It does not tolerate great heat and loves the mild late autumn sun. Its best sites are on the steep and sloping slopes of the Moselle and Rhine, on the Nahe, Saar and Ruwer. The peach scent and the hearty acidity are typical - both can also be reminiscent of apricots at a high level of ripeness, for example in the Rheingau.
Further south, in Franconia, Württemberg or Rheinhessen, the Riesling becomes increasingly strong. In addition, the Ortenau region of Baden and the Wachau region produce distinctly elegant Riesling wines.
Sauvignon blanc, like its brother, the red Cabernet Sauvignon, is at home all around the globe. This variety produces the best wines in Sancerre on the Loire and in the Graves area of Bordelais. If the sauvignon blanc is not fully ripe, its muscat tone is nevertheless very dominant.
Some time ago, Silvaner was still considered Germany's main variety. The neutral-tasting variety reflects very clearly the soil in which it is grown. The best locations are Rheinhessen, Franconia and northern Alsace.
The delicate bouquet of wild roses is so utterly seductive, which is why Europe's winemakers cling to the often capricious, poor-bearing Traminer. Traminer's home is probably South Tyrol. The Gewürztraminer variety is even more lusciously fragrant, and in Alsace it is an absolute star.
Italy's particularly widespread white grape is Trebbiano. The grape variety goes by many names and has several varieties, all of which can be traced back to the ancient Roman Trebulanum. A fresh, pleasantly acidic taste is typical. Frascati and Soave are mainly made from Trebbiano. Incidentally, in southern France the variety is called Ugni blanc and is used primarily for the production of cognac.
In its French homeland, Pinot Blanc is the name given to Pinot Blanc. In Germany, the grape variety is very appreciated because it thrives well where it is already too hot for Riesling, such as in Baden, in the Wonnegau and in the south of the Palatinate. The nutty taste is characteristic dry, a Pinot Blanc is excellent with almost all dishes. As Pinot bianco, the vine delivers many a great drop in northern Italy.
The art in the cellar
Producing good grapes is a great art - making a good wine from them is probably an even greater one. The decisive factor is always the art of the cellar master.
First of all, the grapes are transported to the winery or, alternatively, to the cooperative's grape reception immediately after harvesting. This transport route should be short, if possible, so that the valuable grapes do not eventually oxidize due to atmospheric oxygen. After delivery, the grapes are immediately destemmed, i.e. their stems are removed with the help of a suitably designed mill. Because of their tannin content, the stems would leave a very bitter taste in the wine during subsequent pressing, which is undesirable.
When the grape must runs out of the winepress
After destemming and crushing the grapes, a pulp is produced, the mash. It is pressed into the so-called winepress or press. Because they do not crush the bitter grape seeds they contain and thus work particularly gently overall on the basis of negative pressure or compressed air, modern wine presses produce a much purer must or grape juice than in earlier times.
After pressing, the must generated is clarified in so-called separators. You can imagine such a separator as a standard household centrifuge used to extract fruit juices - only much larger. A bowl rotates in the separator and all solid particles in the must, all turbid matter and impurities are separated out. The end result is clear grape juice.
A certain part of the separated juice is not fermented into wine. Instead, it is stored or sterilized as a so-called "sweet reserve" in pressure tanks specially reserved for this purpose. This prevents further fermentation. Depending on whether a sweet, sweetish or semi-dry wine is desired, the sweet juice from the reserve is added to the finished wine. The process is extremely optimal when the sweet reserve is exactly the same grapes. Because the grapes in Germany are less sweet due to the climate, the described procedure is a permitted practice for quality and Prädikat wines, while it is not used in various other wine-producing countries.
Fermentation: when must becomes wine
In the course of winemaking, fermentation is probably the most important process, because now the grape juice or must becomes wine. The naturally occurring yeasts that sit on the berry skins or also the specially added "pure-breeding yeasts" break down the sugar contained in the must into carbon dioxide and alcohol. If the fermentation process is "too stormy", valuable flavors and aromas are lost along with the escaping carbon dioxide. This is prevented by targeted cooling of the fermentation tanks, and is therefore referred to as "restrained" fermentation. Because well-controlled cooling is supposedly better in steel tanks, they are preferred by various wineries compared to the good old wooden barrels.
At the end of fermentation, all the sugar has been converted into alcohol or carbon dioxide. Now we speak of "fully fermented" wine. Compared to earlier practices, the fermentation process is no longer stopped in order to generate a certain residual sweetness. Instead, all wines are left to ferment. Then they have only a minimal sugar residue.
The racking is the separation from the yeast
After fermentation is complete, the contained yeast particles settle to the bottom of the respective fermentation tank. If the wine were now left "on the lees", peu à peu an undesirable yeast taste would develop. For this reason, a quick and rigorous separation from the yeast, called racking, is necessary. In this process, the wine is pumped into another barrel and thus separated from the lees, which, in addition to the yeasts, also contain various organic components and bacteria. After racking, the cellar master carries out other necessary wine treatments, such as deacidification or fining. Additives are reduced to an absolute minimum, are not contained in the final product and are not an issue at all in the case of organic wines. This is made possible by fermentation and storage of the wines in stainless steel tanks, with the exception of controlled barrique aging.
In the past, the wines were sometimes stored in the barrels for years to clarify them. Today, on the other hand, bottling takes place comparatively early. Then the wine can develop in the glass bottle without being exposed to the influence of oxygen from the air in the barrel. Oxygen from the air soon has a negative effect on the taste of the wine, and various aging processes are also accelerated.
Usually, modern bottling plants operate in a "cold sterile" process. Glass bottles are used for this, which are then filled fully automatically, then well corked and labeled accordingly. After a short settling period and following the official testing procedures that are sometimes required, the wines are put on the market.
The wine comes in different qualities, which are indicated on the labels. This classification is sometimes regulated differently for wines from growing countries outside Germany, despite international regulations. There are regulations that apply only to the respective country and are also weighted differently.
A compilation of European quality levels allows an overview:
- Table wines are called Vin de France in France, Vino da Tavola in Italy, and Vino de mesa in Spain and Portugal.
Plain wine is not subject to any special quality testing. German table wine must be made from approved grape varieties and have an alcohol content of at least 5 percent.
- Landwein bears the designation IGP for wines from France, IGT from Italy, Vino de la tierra from Spain and Vino regional from Portugal.
Landwein has existed as a separate designation in Germany since the early 1980s. It stands for a regionally typical, semi-dry or dry table wine of higher quality. At least 85 percent of the grapes used must come from the wine's original region.
- Quality wine is given the designations VDQS and AOP in France, DOC in Italy, DO in Spain and VQPRD in Portugal.
A distinction is made between quality wines of specified regions (QbA) and the quality wines with predicate (ice wine, Trockenbeerenauslese, Beerenauslese, Auslese, Spätlese, Kabinett).
- Prädikat wines are designated AOP in France, DOCG in Italy, DOCa in Spain and DOC in Portugal.
The highest wine qualities are designated as Prädikatswein.
The wine is thus divided into country-specific quality grades based on its origin, which provides for both legal minimum requirements and a limitation of origin. These quality grades serve the consumer to distinguish between high quality and average wines.
The necessary information can be found on the labels.
Just as a bottled wine is inconceivable without a cork, it is also inconceivable without a label. Yet labeling is not solely a development of the bureaucratization processes of the industrial age.
For more than six millennia ago, the ancient Sumerians already knew that one wine is not like another. Because they wanted to make the differences among the good drops clear, they labeled the wines without further ado. However, this was not done with the help of the nowadays common self-adhesive paper labels that adorn our wine bottles, but with the help of roll seals. Various archaeological finds also point to simple carvings in wine amphorae.
The ancient Romans and Greeks abolished the roller seals and replaced them with rather noble-looking tags - a practice that then lasted into the Middle Ages - until paper labels appeared, which was first recorded, for example, on an "1822 F. M. Schloss Johannisberger Cabinets Wein". From then on, these labels became common.
If you are familiar with the terms on the labels and can read the terms mentioned, such as Qualitätswein, Spätlese, IGT, DOC, etc., you should think no further and open a good bottle of wine.
What is "good", you actually determine yourself - because "good" is the wine that tastes good to you. It is of little relevance from which grape variety it was pressed, where it comes from, who the producer is and whether this or that was regulated by the German Wine Law or by the Wine Market Regulation of the EU.
On the other hand, if you want help in recognizing a wine quality, you will be guided by the information on the wine labels.
Regarding the information on the wine labels, the designation law for wine applies in the EU (Regulation No. 607/2009). According to this, there are mandatory and optional indications.
- Mandatory information is clearly legible:
The quality level (in Germany, for example, table wine, country wine or quality wine as well as quality wine with predicate),
the bottling plant (the name of the winemaker is also mandatory). This also includes the place of bottling, which can also be named with code numbers),
the geographical origin (This indication depends on the quality level, but is often used all-inclusively),
the nominal volume (Here the content is listed in liters.),
the alcohol content (it is indicated in percent by volume),
the lot identification (It makes the clear identification of the wine possible, quality wines are an exception),
the official examination number (wines with the indicated quality level "quality wine" are subjected to a wine examination. If the wine has passed the test sensory as well as geographically and analytically, it gets the test number to be indicated).
If the respective wine has been sulfurized, this must be stated on the label with the wording "Contains sulfites"; the same applies to the protein fining agents ovalbumin and casein.
- Optional indications on wine labels are:
the vintage year (This is the year of the grapes' growth and, as a rule, of the grape harvest. The indication may be given if at least 85 percent of the grapes used for the wine in question were harvested in the designated vintage),
the respective grape variety (permitted for single-varietal wine, but not mandatory - is also possible for certain cuvées),
the location (it may be indicated as well as the respective wine location),
as well as further permissible additions such as menu recommendations or drinking temperatures.
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