Raising a toast to the spirit of wines

My article on this subject was published in The Asian Age on May 26th, 2010. For the majority of urban, middle-class Indians, drinking wine is still a relatively new concept. Often I meet people in India who are intimidated by wine. The goal of the article is to demystify wine a little and to encourage Indians to drink wine.  Through the article I wanted to communicate that wine is a simple beverage and the basic idea is to enjoy drinking it. If you have a moment, please read my article, Raising a Toast to the Spirit of Wines. the following is the full text of the article:

And much as wine has played the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour – well,
I often wonder what the Vintners buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell

Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam, Persian poet, (1050-1123)

Wine has been linked with human history longer than most of us realize. Omar Khayyam wrote about wine in the 11th and 12th centuries AD. However, archaeological evidence suggests that wine from grapes had already been produced in his native Iran as far back as 5000 BC! The Greeks and the Egyptians produced it, but wine reached true prominence under the Roman Empire. Some of Europe’s vineyards have been continuously cultivated with vines since Roman times.

Throughout history wine has had several purposes: as a refreshment, intoxicant, medicine and critically, as an accompaniment to Christian religious practice. It is the Benedictine monks who came to own and develop some of Europe’s best vineyard sites in the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire. For all its long and fascinating history, the essential core of wine making is still the same – grapes are grown and then grape juice is fermented to produce an alcoholic beverage.

What sets wine apart from vodka or whisky? First, let me say: to each his own tipple! If the liquid in your glass makes you happy, then that’s the right liquid for you. I personally have a passion for wine which has helped me to understand why it acquired spiritual connotations for the Benedictines. My goal is simply to make wine easier to understand, not to evangelize it.

A major difference between wine and hard spirits is that wine is fermented while spirits are distilled. To produce wine, yeast is added to grape juice which converts the sugar in the juice to alcohol. Fermentation usually stops (or is stopped) when wine reaches around 12-14% alcohol by volume (ABV). If all the sugar is fermented out of the grape juice, the resulting wine is ‘dry’. If fermentation is stopped before all the sugar is converted to alcohol, some sweetness remains in the wine and it can be called ‘off-dry’ or ‘sweet’ depending on the amount of residual sugar in the wine.

The 12-14% ABV for wine makes it a gentler intoxicant than hard spirits which are usually around 40% ABV. One standard 150ml glass of wine at about 14% ABV will contain about as much alcohol as a large (60ml) peg of whisky at about 40% ABV. The level of intoxication in the end depends on the volume that is consumed. Beer is usually only about 4% ABV, but can make one quite drunk depending on the quantity consumed! The major benefit of wine is the flavour and its ability to accompany and enhance the flavours of food. Distillation of spirits strips flavour. Fermentation of wine is a gentler process that converts sugar to alcohol, but does not strip all the flavour out of the liquid.

What then is the difference between red and white wines? To start with, it is a misperception that white wines are automatically lower in alcohol than reds. Whites and reds can and often do have similar alcoholic strengths. The juice of all grapes, red and white, is usually colourless. Reds are made by a different process, in which colour is extracted from the skin of the red grapes, along with tannin and other elements. This gives red wine a different texture and mouth-feel, and has a big influence on wine and food pairing. It’s interesting to note that white wine can be made from red grapes. If the skins are removed from the juice immediately after pressing and no colour is extracted, the resultant wine is white. Pinot Noir, a major component in white Champagne, is a red grape. The best Rosé or ‘blush’ wines are made from an ‘abbreviated’ red wine method – where some colour is extracted from the red grape skins before the skins are removed and fermentation continues.

There are other differences between reds and whites in the way that these are drunk and the foods they should be consumed with. This article is too short to offer a full pairing or drinking guide. The best suggestion I can offer is to trust your instincts and to experiment. Remember, no rules are absolute – therefore, the need to experiment and develop your own instincts! What kind of wine would you drink in really hot weather like the weather in Delhi these days? I would venture that a light white wine, suitably chilled is a good choice! This choice also offers the benefit of easy pairing with lighter foods such as summer salads, or lighter preparations of chicken – just the kinds of foods we enjoy in the summer! I would save the big, tannic red wine for a cooler evening when I can pair it with a hearty meat dish. I personally prefer not to have a mouth-coating, powerful red wine (not chilled) at the peak of hot weather! Treat Rosé or ‘blush’ wines like breezy white wines – pair them with similar foods, and serve them chilled.

In Old World Europe, particularly in France and Italy – wine is considered a part of the meal. It is common for standard restaurant ‘set menus’ to include wine. Often this is unremarkable table or country wine. But served as part of an everyday lunch or dinner, it matches the setting perfectly and provides an excellent accompaniment to the meal. The key is that wine is always available, is present on every table, and one does not need to be a wine snob to enjoy it. In some parts of Italy, the daily supply of wine still costs less than the daily supply of bread! Wine is also a part of the fabled Mediterranean diet which is said to prevent heart disease.

Part of the beauty of wine is its diversity. There’s something for every occasion and every kind of taste. If you get tired of the usual run of Reds, Whites and Rosés – you can always try a sparkling. Traditional method sparkling wine is basically wine that has had a second fermentation induced in the bottle – the bubbles are the result of the CO2 that is generated during the fermentation being trapped in the bottle. Champagne is the best known example of sparkling and its link with celebrations is automatic. Champagne can only come from the region of that name in France and is usually expensive. However, there is plenty of good and affordable sparkling wine available – including Indian sparking wine – that is excellent to drink on its own or served as part of a meal. It is also an excellent conversation starter when served unexpectedly to friends at a casual lunch.

The key to enjoying wine is to be relaxed about it – and to drink it at every opportunity. Happy drinking!

About Gaurav Anand

Certified Sommelier Gaurav Anand is an India based wine writer, consultant, educator and founder of Wine Forays. He earned his Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers and holds the WSET Advanced certification in Wines & Spirits. Above all, he is a wine lover on a full-time mission to taste and discover the best wines in the world.
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