Sunday, November 09, 2008

Better Living Through Chemistry

I love chemistry and math. I always have. Tinkering with pH meters, test tubes, pipets. Doing titrations, mixing, measuring, stirring, taking notes, it just really pops my cork.

I am sure that I would still enjoy wine making if it was lower tech, like baking or cooking, but I really enjoy the chemistry aspect of it.

I don't want to give the impression that a wine needs to be heavily manipulated. Wine can be made from grapes with almost no adulteration. It is almost a perfect is process. Grapes from the field can be crushed and fermented as is, no additions, no adjustments. If good vineyard management and cultural practices are used, and the climate and stars all aligned, the juice will be well balanced. Many areas are natural hosts to wild yeasts that will produce a phenomenal wine.

But, lets not kid ourselves. This "natural" wine is not solely a product of nature alone. Those grapes are not wild. They are the result of centuries of manipulation, selection, hybridization and cloning by man to accentuate the traits desirable for winemaking and suppress those traits that are not. Current wine grapes would nearly kill themselves from over-cropping would it not be for the vineyard worker pruning and thinning. This vine is not propagated as it would be in the wild, from the seeds of a parent plant. They are all genetic clones of a single mother vine that was identified, possibly hundreds of years ago.

We are not all blessed with perfect climate in all regions, every year. Some years give us grapes that are low in sugar, low in acid, high in acid, any number of deviations from an ideal crop. In these cases, it might call for an adjustment of acid, or sugar, or water.

Those "Natural" yeasts are really not wild either. They can more accurately be described as feral. Over generations of both yeasts and vintages, the local wine makers have encouraged stains that work well, discouraged those that did not. The strains of yeasts that produced good wines would be the ones that populated the winery and communities where they were enjoyed. On the walls, in the rafters. They are spread though the fields with the discarded grape skins. Over time, they have come to dominate the local area.

The wine makers found, through trial and error, accident and happenstance, that some things made wine better, other things made wine worse. Oak barrels were good, clay pots, no so much. Burnt sulfur made the wine last longer, elemental sulfur kept the mildew away.

Louis Pasteur was instrumental in identifying organisms that caused fermentation, and others that would would make wine go bad. He developed a procedure for reducing the effects of the bad and allowing desired organisms (yeast) to dominate.

So, winemaking has been improved through close cooperation if science. Better winemaking through chemistry. Making wine does not require a love of chemistry or math, but for me, it has always been the added bonus. Not that it needed it.


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