A classical definition of wine is very simple:


    “Wine is an alcoholic beverage obtained from the fermentation of juice from freshly gathered grapes, the fermentation taking place in the district of origin according to local tradition and practice.”

In the fermentation process, sugar is converted into alcohol by yeast. At its simplest, wine is made by crushing grapes and allowing the natural yeasts present on the skins to come in to contact with the natural sugars present in the juice. No other human intervention is needed: crushed like this, any grapes can make wine.

The winemaker, of course, intervenes in this process in many ways to affect the quality of the wine that is produced. He or she must choose the best quality of fruit, must ensure the operation is carried out with scrupulous hygiene and must ensure the final product is fit for consumption. Beyond these simple steps however, the winemaker can influence the wine in many other ways, taking certain decisions and actions that affect the style of the wine and how it will taste. We will look at these actions in detail later in the course, but they include: the selection and mixture of grapes used, the method of fermentation, and the treatment the wine is given as it matures in the cellars.

The rules vary from region to region, but most authorities allow the addition of controlled quantities of certain other ingredients in the making of wine, including:

  • Sugar is allowed in many areas if there is insufficient sun to fully ripen the grapes
  • Some strains of yeast perform better than others, and introducing yeast is allowed
  • The addition of natural fruit acids is permitted in some hotter regions
  • Powdered tannins may be added in some regions
  • Small quantities of sulphur can be used to sanitise wines.

The beginning of the 21st century saw a rise of a movement towards ‘natural wine’. So far there is no globally-accepted legal definition of a natural wine, but wines are made from organically-grown grapes, and these added ingredients are avoided, though most still use some sulphur.

The origins of wine

Nobody knows who “invented” wine. Its discovery was probably accidental. After harvesting, some grapes were left in a container over the winter and the natural yeasts and sugars converted the juice into wine.

From earliest times, the process of winemaking developed and was encouraged. Apart from the taste, and the ‘magical’ effect wine had on drinkers, it was granted religious, even mystical properties. The Greek God Dionysus and the Roman God Bacchus were high ranking Gods of wine. The Christians used sacramental wines: the miracle of the conversion of water into wine and the use of wine to represent Christ’s blood in the communion service, are examples of its importance in the Christian religion. The wine industry would not be flourishing in California today had not the Christian missionaries planted vines there for religious purposes.

Although archaeologists have traced the origins of wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) back tens of thousands of years, the first evidence of wine having actually been made from grapes comes from a clay pot found in Persia (now Iran) dating from around 10,000 years B.C. Our understanding of how vine growing and winemaking grew, spread and flourished has been pieced together.

egyptSeparate waves of ancient cultures took the vine and the secrets of winemaking on their travels along the shores of the Mediterranean and beyond. The Greeks planted vines wherever they set up colonies, from France to Egypt.

This Egyptian wall painting shows each stage of the winemaking process, from gathering the grapes, to drinking the finished product. In turn the Romans spread vineyards throughout Europe, including France and the UK.

Where is Wine Made?

The climatic conditions needed for growing quality vines are strictly defined. Vines need cool winters when the vine can ‘sleep’ and gather strength for the production of the next summer’s crop. Too cold though, and the roots of the vine can be damaged by frost leading to the death of the plant. Spring must be warm and wet, though not too wet, so that the plants can bud and produce the tiny flowers that will eventually become bunches of grapes. Summers should be long, sunny, and hot, but again, too much heat is counter-productive, leading to scorched fruit that ripens too quickly and doesn’t have enough quality. The autumn must be gentle and relatively dry so that the grapes can reach full maturity and the harvest can be completed before excessive rain or cold damages the mature grapes.

These requirements exclude the northern and southern latitudes, which are too cold with too little sun. Equatorial land is also excluded, as they are too hot and humid, with no period in which the vines can rest.

wine growing latitudes

Vines flourish in two quite narrow bands of latitude approximately 30-50° north and 30-50° south of the equator. Here, the climatic conditions are right for growing wine grapes of the highest quality. Wines are made on the margins of these latitudes, but their big problem is consistency given the marignal climate.

Conditions for growing vines

Unlike most agricultural crops, the grapevine does not require rich, fertile soil to thrive. In fact, soils which are too rich, too full of nitrogen and nutrients, might produce abundant crops, but these will be grapes suitable for eating, not for making wine. The fruit will be too simple and sweet and lacking in complex minerals, sugars, acids and flavours. The world’s finest wines are invariably produced from poor quality soils where few other crops would be worth planting. The great wines of Bordeaux are produced from soil composed largely of gravel and pebbles, on a base of clay or chalk. The great Burgundies come from acidic, granite soil on a base of limestone.

The reason for this anomaly – poor land producing great wines – is that the thinness of the soil naturally restricts the quantity of the crop, so that fewer grapes are produced, but of higher quality. This is the same principle that a prize rose grower might adopt: thinning the bush to encourage the blooms that remain to reach a higher quality. Also, poor, free draining topsoil encourages the vine to send its roots deeper in search of water and nutrients. As the roots reach further down, complex minerals will be absorbed that will add complexity to the grape and, eventually, to the wine. Vineyards tend to be situated along river valleys, on gentle slopes where they have maximum exposure to the sun, where the soil is free draining, and where, historically, the rivers could be used for transport.

Grapes and Wine

Curiously, wine rarely tastes or smells of grapes. The grapes from which wine is made, however, are the most important factor in taste. Wines made from the chardonnay, for example, are said to have a taste of peaches, lemons or butter. Wines made from the cabernet sauvignon are reckoned to have flavours of blackcurrant, plums or chocolate. Historically, old world producers stressed the importance of where the wine came from on the label, rather than what was in the bottle:

  • Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Sancerre, Rioja, Port, Sherry.

Some producers, on the other hand, used brand names for their products:

  • Hirondelle, Black Tower, Mateus Rosé, Blue Nun, Le Piat d’Or.

The one thing that never appeared on the label was the grape variety. The consumer simply didn’t know the origins of the wine they were drinking: until the 1980s we didn’t ask for a chardonnay or a riesling, because we didn’t know we liked chardonnay or riesling.

The Old World and the New

The New World had a lot to contend with in trying to compete in this marketplace. Why would we buy some strangely named bottle from California or Australia? At first, the New World competed by simply ‘borrowing’ famous names from the Old World: “Australian Burgundy” and “Californian Chablis” became commonplace. European law soon caught up with this practice however, ruling that Burgundy or Chablis can only be made in Burgundy or Chablis. So even though the New World producer could use identical grapes and identical methods to produce a high quality version of one of these famous wines, they could not be sold in Europe under a name the consumer would recognise.

Rather than battle against tradition and legislation, the solution the New World arrived at was to use varietal labelling. They attempted to change the whole way we thought about, talked about, selected, chose between, and most importantly, bought wine. They educated us in the grapes from which the wine was made by stressing this, rather than the place of origin on the label. Soon we got used to the idea of buying a bottle of chardonnay, a bottle of sauvignon blanc, a bottle of merlot or a bottle of pinot noir.

This is perhaps the biggest change ever in the way wine is regarded by consumers: ordinary people learned to recognise wine by the grape variety used. In turn this lead to a willingness to experiment: to buy and experience the type of wine they like, no matter where it was made, New World or Old. Even France has recognised that they must move in to this modern world in order to compete and survive. Maybe not in the great, classical regions, but in regional wines the naming of grapes on labels is now as common in Europe as anywhere in the winemaking world.

Although the New World has altered the whole way we buy and think about wine, they have always acknowledged that the Old World – France in particular – had a huge amount to teach them. France has a combination of many factors which mean it is still at the fore-front of quality wine production:

  • an ideal location (latitude)
  • a highly suitable range of soil types
  • suitable weather conditions
  • generations of knowledge
  • long established vineyards
  • a well established set of wine laws (appellation contrôlée)
  • a highly skilled support industry – nurserymen, barrel makers, shippers, scientists, etc.

In other countries around the world winemakers have taken the grape varieties and techniques used in France and have attempted to create their own versions of classic wines.

Below is a table with 3 columns:

  1. gives the name of some of the “classic” French wines
  2. gives the principal grapes from which they are made
  3. shows some of the countries making wines in a similar style:
Wine Grapes New world competitors
Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc,
Petit Verdot
USA, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, Italy, Lebanon
Burgundy (red) Pinot Noir USA, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa
Burgundy (white) Chardonnay Australia, New Zealand, USA,
South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary
Northern Rhône Syrah (shiraz) Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa
Alsace Gewurztraminer, Riesling New Zealand, Australia, USA
Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc New Zealand, Chile, USA, South Africa
Champagne Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa

The challenge is to create wines that have the quality of the ‘originals’ and will have the staying power to keep them being bought and enjoyed by wine lovers around the world for generations. For us, this results in a wider choice of wines than ever before, from a wider variety of places. It also means – with some top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy now costing hundreds of pounds per bottle – that we have a chance to glimpse what some of the world’s greatest wines have to offer, at a reasonable price.

Go to Wine Course Part II – white wine