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Be Sure to Thank a Grape

“The juice of the grape is the liquid quintessence of concentrated sunbeams.”

- Thomas Love Peacock

Picture of ripened grapes on a vine.

Thank you, grape (and its vine, of course).

Also, not going to lie; I had to look up "quintessence." It's been a LONG time since I studied for the SAT in high school. The quintessence of something is its perfect, ideal example. So thanks, Thomas Love Peacock, for bringing to heart the core of winemaking and the vital force of sunlight.

The quote is a perfect bridge to today's overall message. One thing I've realized that I've taken for granted is grapes (Really, Jake, seriously?). When it comes to tasting and appreciating wine, the grape is the center of the universe. It's not that I just had this groundbreaking realization of where a wine comes from; it's that I didn't appreciate the importance of the grape and its vine. So much variety of flavor and texture can be produced from something so simple. Amazing.

In my Level 1 studies for the WSET (in case you need a refresher), the course starts with the basics of the grape.

A diagram of the inside of a grape: Stem, Skin, Seeds, and Pulp.

It's truly pretty simple! There are 2 main types of grapes used for making wine:

  • White grapes

  • Black grapes

I find this pretty cool because white and black grapes look almost identical inside (both have clear juice). Where they actually differ in the winemaking process are the skins.

The Skins and Tannins

A side-by-side view of ripe white grapes and ripe black grapes.

I'll get more into this in a later post about the winemaking process, but, generally speaking, white grape skins are removed before fermentation, and black grape skins are removed after. Why? Because of the tannins that are present in the skins of black grapes.

There are tannins in black grapes, which cause the mouth to feel dry, while white grape skins are golden in color and contain no tannins.

White grapes= No Tannins

Black grapes= Varied amount of Tannins

Sidenote for a later post: Black grapes can be used to produce white wines if the juice is separated from the grape skins early enough before fermentation. Champagne is a wonderful example, as its typical principal grapes are Chardonnay (white grapes) and Pinot Noir without its skins (black grapes).

What are tannins, actually? I researched this in preparation for writing today's post because even as a wine drinker, I didn't know what they were outside of a substance that brings dryness to your mouth in red wines. I'll never forget this because my instructor calls them "fuzzy pillows for your teeth and gums". Hard to forget that one!

Biologically, tannins are naturally occurring molecules found in plants that dry your tongue (technically, they are called polyphenols). Wine tannins are obtained largely from grape skins as well as seeds, stems, and oak barrels.

Skins, seeds, and stems of grapes release tannins when they are soaked in juice; the longer they are soaked, the more tannins are released. I don't know the exacts from a time standpoint, but my understanding so far is that this is a key piece for the winemaker to find balance in how long they soak.

"Tannin," the word itself, actually comes from taking extracts from plans to cure leather ("tanning").

In nature, tannins in plants are natural repellents that exist to keep animals from eating them before it is safe (once the plant is ripe). But for us human wine drinkers, they are a beautiful element that brings so much character and complexity to the wine.

In learning about tannins, I'd love to understand them and their nuances better, but I'll keep it high-level for now and dig deeper later.

Check out the quick 45-second-ish explanation below for some TL;DR on Tannins:

The Pulp

Next, you have the pulp. Regardless of the color of the grape skin, the pulp of a grape is soft and juicy, and the pulp color is clear. The pulp contains grape juice, which is primarily composed of water, sugar, and acid.

Pulp= Water, Sugar, and Acid

For white wines, the pulp really provides most of the flavor and acidity. Even though red wines get their flavor (and dryness) from the skins, they still benefit from the pulp's acidity and sweetness.

Nature Rewards Hard Work

A picture of bottles of wine on a shelf with award medals hanging around the necks of the bottles.

I remember visiting a tasting room when my wife and I lived in Washington State a few years ago, and I'll never forget something they told us. They said, "Struggle for a vine, and its grapes make the best wine."

Well, why? What is the purpose from a vine's point of view? Simple. It needs to get its grapes as ripe as possible so that birds and such will eat them and spread the seeds, aka survival.

So, during rough seasons of little water and a lot of heat, all that energy is placed into growing amazing, sweet, and delicious grapes that will be desirable to eat. This means more sugar that can be converted into alcohol during fermentation and thicker skins, which leads to higher tannins.

I think it's quite amazing how the struggling grape has no idea how great it will be. It's almost nature's way of rewarding struggle and hard work.

All this being said, too much or too little of anything can be bad. Too much struggle will lead to overripened grapes, inherently producing less-than-desirable wine without balance. At the same time, too little struggle can lead to overall acidic wine without enough body and character.

What's Next: Grape Growing...

Next, in my course, they talk to us about where grapes grow. I think this is a super interesting subject because finding that balance (sugar vs. acidity) of setting grapes up for success and allowing for struggle (warm summer, cool winter) inherently depends on the type of grape and what the winemaker is looking to bring out in their wine (as well as countless other variables). So, be on the lookout for another post in your inbox in the next few days!

Until next time!



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