Wine facts you may not know
Wine has been a popular drink for a very long time. Jesus is said to have been a wine maker, albeit only once, and not using any of the traditional ingredients. But even thousands of years before that famous party trick, people were drinking wine throughout the ancient world.
People love wine because it has such incredible versatility and character and, as we shall see, sometimes a little more character than we bargain for.
1. Wine was very important in the Middle East in ancient times
It may seem ironic now that wine is actually prohibited or heavily restricted throughout most of the Middle East today, but in ancient times it was a very important part of daily life. Not quite as important as beer, however, as beer had much stricter laws attached, including that if you sold a bad batch of beer you would be put to death by drowning (perhaps in your own brew).
Wine has been used in the region since at least the days of the Sumerian empire, and may have been around even longer than that. Estimates are in the range of 10,000 to 6,000 B.C., which means wine has had a rich history.
In the entire Old Testament, there is only one book which makes no reference to wine at all, which is the book of Jonah, perhaps not too surprising considering his apparent hobby of whale watching wouldn’t have afforded him much time to hang around drinking with his friends.
2. Wine and beer need to be stored in exactly the opposite way to each other
Wine is always best when the bottle is sealed with a cork. Modern metal screw-top bottles are unfortunately becoming much more common, but to the purist these are considered an abomination. One of the drawbacks to using corks, however, is that they can dry out, which causes them to shrink, increasing the chance that oxygen will get inside the bottle and spoil the wine.
To prevent cork shrinkage, it’s important to store wine lying on it’s side, preferably as flat as possible. This is why wine racks are designed to hold bottles in this way. Beer bottles, on the other hand, should always be stored upright and never lying down, because the acid in the beer can react with the metal cap, changing the flavour of the beer and also increasing the chance of oxidation.
Tragically, although it’s less extreme, wine that has a metal cap also requires upright storage, but wine racks are still built for horizontal storage. This means that with many modern wines, the racks do the opposite of what they were designed to prevent.
3. Oxygen is really important
The interaction between wine and oxygen, especially red wine, is very complex. Too much oxygen over a long time, and the wine will spoil. Not enough oxygen in the short term and the wine will not have a full taste.
When serving most red wines, it is best to ensure they’re at room temperature and have been allowed to “breathe”. Breathing a wine—or to use the more scientific term, aeration—means opening it and allowing oxygen to enter the bottle, and then never filling the wine glass more than about a third of it’s total capacity. Ideally transferring the wine from the bottle to an open decanter or jug will also help with aeration.
This may sound snobbish, but the aeration really does help to unlock flavonoids in the wine and improve its quality. Timing, however, is crucial.
For aged wines, it’s best to not let them breathe too much, because they’re already mature. For younger wines, you’ll want to allow more time—at least 20 minutes in most cases, and even as much as an hour—to allow the oxygen to do its work.
Swishing the wine occasionally during aeration, and also just before drinking will also improve aeration, and subsequently your enjoyment. The key to a good swish is to swish gently. Vigorous swishing can lead to all kinds of problems, including the dreaded “swisher’s wrist”, “swisher’s eye”, and even “swisher’s black eye” (after accidentally spilling wine on Sally Muggins’ wedding dress).
While in general it is red wines that require aeration, some white wines may also improve with a little aeration. The best way to find out which ones is by experimentation.
4. The climate the grapes are grown in is really important to the resulting wine quality
Temperature and precipitation are exceptionally important to growing grapes for wine making. Hot, dry climates like South Africa, South Australia, South-Western France, Southern Italy, California, and more recently Spain, are ideal places for producing sweet, full-bodied wine grapes with a rich flavour. The reason for this is because the hot and dry conditions result in smaller grapes with a higher sugar content, which also improves fermentation.
Some Australian, Spanish, and South American vineyards even add stones around the base of their vines to increase the heat, thereby hoping to dehydrate their crop even more. It’s a difficult balance, as if they go too far, the grapes will be ruined and the vine may even die.
For dry wine styles, however, those places with colder temperatures and more rainfall, like Burgundy, Chile, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Argentina, are ideally suited. Here larger grapes with a lower sugar content will result. Many of these regions also produce excellent dessert wines when the grapes are attacked by botrytis cineria, a fungus which reduces the water content of the grape, leaving behind grape sugar and nutrients.
5. Soil is also important, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect
Strangely enough, the best soils for growing wine grapes tend to be those that are considered least suitable for growing anything else, except maybe cactus. Of course there needs to be enough nutrition in the soil to allow the plant to grow, but too much will result in an abundance of foliage and a deficit of fruit.
This is why the Terra Rossa (“Red Earth”) soil found in the Barossa Valley is widely considered to be some of the best soil in the world for growing wine grapes, while pretty much nothing else will grow there. South of the Barossa, at the Fleurieu Peninsula, the Terra Rossa mingles with limestone, which may result in even more sophisticated wine (eg. Nepenthe’s pinot grigio), but the limited room of the peninsula and competition with other farm types means the Barossa gets the major share of attention.
6. In Thailand, strawberries are often the main ingredient in wine
Many visitors to Thailand are surprised to discover there is any local wine industry at all, but there is, although it’s mainly restricted to the North Western regions due to the cooler and drier conditions that prevail there. While there are small scale traditional wineries producing wine made from grapes, by far the more likely local wine you are likely to encounter on a trip through Thailand is strawberry wine, which can be surprisingly complex and doesn’t necessarily have to be sickly sweet (although you’ll find most Thais prefer it that way).
The best areas to find strawberry wine are Phitsanulok, Chiang Mai, Fang, and (to less of an extent) Chiang Rai. In these areas, which are mountainous and cool, with moderate rainfall and naturally low acid soil, conditions are excellent for growing strawberries and also for wine production, as the lower temperatures lead to a long, lingering fermentation.
You’ll find local strawberry and grape-based wine in roadside stalls and restaurants, while shops and supermarkets are more likely to stock imported wines, and a local “sparkling wine” called Spy, which actually tastes more like a soft drink. More difficult to find, but slightly better in quality, is another local sparkling wine called Full Moon, which comes in both white and red varieties.
When drinking either beer or wine in a restaurant in Thailand, you may find that waiters wish to shovel ice cubes into your drink. This is not considered unusual in Thailand, but as the ice melts, it will dilute your drink, so it’s best not to follow the local custom.
7. Wine (in moderation) is good for you
Numerous scientific studies have concluded that wine has many health-boosting properties. While some of these may be a mystery, others are easier to identify, particularly the high levels of anti-oxidants found in red wine.
8. Turning water into wine isn’t the only wine miracle
Jesus gets most of the attention for the miracle of turning water into wine, but we have to keep in mind that this only benefited a few people and just for a short time.
A modern-day miracle that you can actually play a part in is provided by an organisation called “Wine to Water“, which sells wine and conducts wine tastings, then uses the money raised to construct wells in developing nations, providing vital life-sustaining water to over one million people in desperate need.
Wine in moderation
Wine is so good for us in so many ways, it can be considered as an essential item. It can be used for drinking, cooking, making vinegar, and even as a catalyst in chemical reactions.
It has proven health-boosting properties, can enhance the flavour of a meal, may improve digestion, and also can make us feel better and more positive. Enjoying wine in moderation is one of the best things you can do to live a fuller life, and may even extend your life.