On numerous occasions I’ve discussed the symbiotic relationship of wine and the external environment with which it interacts. The French term “terroir” encapsulates the natural influences of climate, soil, sun exposure and elevation on the final wine produced and released by winemakers, even though their vineyards may be mere yards apart.
One wine may be rich and complex, the other fruit-forward with in-your-face ripeness. One may be redolent of black fruit, the other of herbs. One may exude mineral aromatics, the other a flowery bouquet.
While a winemaker’s influence may seem to play the critical role in the final product, an old adage rings true to me each time I conduct a “compare and contrast” evaluation of wines from similar regions and the same grape: “90 percent of a wine is made in the vineyard.”
The impacts on the final expression of a wine fall into varied and numerous realms in the creation and aging of a bottle of fine wine. Even though it is nature that has the most significant influence, there are factors at work in the winery – post-harvest – that affect the ultimate drinkability and age-worthiness of wine.
Biology: The beginnings of a fine wine are influenced by the strain of yeast that grows on grape skins. When grapes are crushed in the winery, the sugars in the juice interact with these yeasts, creating alcohol and natural compounds that ultimately affect taste and longevity.
Chemistry: A winemaker has a number of sources outside the vineyard for purchasing yeast cultures. Each form of yeast will influence the characteristics of the final fermented juice that will be bottled and aged.
Physics: The interaction of fermented juice with oxygen in its fermentation vessel, and the duration of this interaction, will influence the levels of tannins and phenolic compounds. Our perception of a fine wine, beyond the sensory components of the raw product nurtured in the vineyards, typically is the result of the introduction of oxygen during and after a wine’s production cycle.
These immutable laws of nature and science certainly may be manipulated during the production of fine wine. This is why one consumer may prefer a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, while another may disdain the aromas and flavors and finish of this French wine in favor of a Cabernet Sauvignon from California or Washington or Chile.
And the final product, even when bottled and released for sale, may be influenced even further by those immutable laws. As a bottle of fine wine ages, its characteristics and profile will evolve. The cumulative impact of terroir, fermentation and oxygen continue to exert their influence. This is why one wine loses its vitality and structure soon after it is released by a winery. And it is the reason why another wine may age for years, even decades, continually changing, maturing and improving in aroma and flavor.
Wine is a living, breathing organism and requires the presence of oxygen in order to properly mature in a bottle. The amount of oxygen present in the neck of a bottle and likewise the amount seeping into a bottle can make a wine truly memorable – or a disaster.
The seeming inconsequential role of a natural cork is critical in the aging process. More than a bottle stopper trapping wine-altering oxygen in the bottle, its low-density cells contain minute amounts of oxygen, which permeate a bottle and, by the laws of physics, provide a laboratory for the evolution of wine trapped in the bottle.
Each time you open a bottle of wine, young or aged, there is a message in that bottle. Savor its contents; immerse yourself in the natural and scientific elements that influence it; and enjoy the symbiotic relationship of your palate and a glass of wine.
Note: I will be hosting a fundraising wine and food pairing event, featuring little-known Italian wines, to benefit A-Home, a provider of local affordable housing. It is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Holy Innocents Church social hall in Pleasantville. For tickets ($75), contact Barbara Coleman at email@example.com or 914-741-0740.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.