Why Wines Differ

Last night a friend stopped by for dinner. He brought moose sausages to grill; I boiled up some Yukon grown red potatoes and added butter and rosemary.

We washed it down with the better part of a bottle of one of my “go to” bottles of Italian red wine, a 2009 Citra Montepulciano D’Abrruzzo (about $12.00 at the YLC, for a litre bottle).

I wrote about this dry but fruity food wine about a year and a half ago, and it continues to be a standard I grab off the shelf and serve with everything from grilled meats to pizza to pasta.

For dessert I had made clafoutis, a French dish where you take fresh half plums (the ripe BC plums were very inexpensive and delicious), peaches or cherries, put them in a buttered dish, pour a batter of milk, flour and eggs with a dash of vanilla and cinnamon or nutmeg over them, and bake in the oven.

My friend’s Madeira reminded me that I had two others in the cabin, and we were soon trying three different Madeiras from three different glasses, and chatting about the virtues of each.

He had brought a basic Casa dos Vinhos Selected Rich Malmsey Madeira that was at the Rotary Wine Festival last year for about $28.50 (it is on the YLC list, but I don’t recall seeing it recently).

I had a bottle of single vintage Henriques and Henriques 1998 Medium Rich Madeira, as well as a Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve (both sadly very hard to come by), and we decided to taste the three back to back (to back).

As we tasted, my friend asked the obvious question: “What makes them so different?” The more I thought about his question, the more I thought about how it applies to all wines we taste, and I thought I’d take a swing at answering it.

I think it comes down to grape, region, vintage and the actual winemaking.

Grape is the easiest. We all know that a McIntosh apple tastes very different from a BC Delicious or a Granny Smith. The same is true of the juice from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes vs. Shiraz vs. Pinot noir grapes. Each grape juice has its own characteristic taste.

Region also imparts particular characteristics to the taste of a wine. In the region of Provence, in southeastern France, vineyards and fields of lavender grow side by side. The bees pollinating the grapevines also carry lavender pollen on their fuzzy little bodies.

Over centuries, the pollen and scent of the lavender has influenced the characteristics of grape (and hence wine) taste – I swear I can scent hints of lavender in some wines of that region.

Similarly, the taste of the earth can influence wine. Does that Sauvignon blanc have a mineral taste? It might be the soil the vines are grown in.

When you taste a South African Pinotage red, does it have a dry, dusty taste at the back of your throat that you could imagine from a cloud of red dust kicked up by an elephant?

There are likely not many elephants tramping through South African vineyards, but part of the charm of this regional characteristic is an imagined one. The French call it terroir, or a sense of place.

Even little Madeira, an island of 300 square miles a 2½ hour flight from Lisbon, off the west coast of Africa, imparts flavours unique in the wine world. Its sub-tropical climate, high volcanic peaks, mountain water irrigation, and the fact that it’s surrounded by the deep, briny Atlantic, all go into the terroir of the wine.

Vintage. That one’s easy. What was the year like? Early spring, hot summer, lots of rain, early frost; all these factors affect the growth of the grape, and thus its taste.

In general, hot summers have the major positive affect on a vintage – the hot European summer of 2000 yielded one of the best vintages of the century – while cool rainy summers make for less successful vintages.

Winemaking… the magic art. This is where human intervention has the most impact on the end taste and wine experience.

The individual winemaker must decide when to pick the grapes and how to make the wine.

Imagine two vineyard owners with adjacent properties. The first, fearing frost, might choose to pick his grapes the second week of September.

The second, taking a risk, decides to let his grapes mature for one more week on the vine. The week turns out to be hot and sunny, adding to the ripeness of his grapes.

When each presses his grapes, the second vintner’s grapes have that added week of maturity. And that is just one of the variables.

Wines made with a mix of different grape juices, such as Bordeaux or Chianti, can be subtly different as a result of different ratios of the different grapes. Port and Madeira makers can do the same by mixing different proportions of different vintages of their wine to make up their final product.

Other variables to consider include how long the wines are aged, what they are aged in (steel barrels or oak; or, in the case of some Lebanese wines, concrete tanks), the wood used (French oak barrels or American oak) and the temperature at which the wines are aged.

Here, Madeira is dramatically different. Virtually all wines are aged underground in cool cellars; Madeira is aged in hot attic rooms at temperatures up to 35C!

These factors are all under the control of the winemaker, and the choices he or she makes are influenced by training, thousands of years of winemaking experience and knowledge and, in the best wine makers, inspired intuition.

All these factors influence what we, the happy imbibers, experience.

In the case of last night, the winemaker’s happy art coalesced in three bottles of Madeira wine from a faraway sub-tropical island and prompted good conversation in a small, lakeside Yukon cabin, on a cool autumn night.


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