Wine has been an integral part of our food and culture since the dawn of civilization. Archeological evidence strongly suggests that grape cultivation and wine making began in Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas between 6000 and 4000 BCE. Though there are numerous fables that claim to explain the discovery of wine, one logical explanation is that damaged grapes fermented over time in harvesting vessels and the resulting alcoholic concoction was much favored and went on to be known as wine. Wine was savored by the royalty and priests as part of their dietary and socio-religious functions while commoners kept to mead beer and ale. The Ancient Egyptians, who were the first culture to document the process of wine making, preserved detailed descriptions of harvesting grapes and wine-making on well-preserved clay tablets, found in the burial chambers of their social elite. Wine making slowly made its way to Greece, where it seeped into all aspects of society such as literature, mythology, medicine, leisure and religion. The Romans took vine clippings from Greece to Italy, and centers of viticulture sprouted in Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and the rest of Europe. Trade routes and early explorers carried the art of cultivation and wine making to Mexico, Argentina and North Africa. The culture of wine continues to spread around the globe today, reaching every continent except Antarctica.
Most of the world’s wine is based on a standard set by Vitis vinifera, a species of European grape which is known for its ability to produce deliciously rich and complex wines. Vinifera vines were highly valued and travelled to the New World with colonialists from France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Explorations of Northeast coast of North America (also known as ‘˜Vinland’), led to discovery of the native grape species and hence the name. However it proved difficult to extract satisfactory wines from these wild grapes. Centuries later, early European settlers in America attempted to grow Vinifera vines in hopes of creating a similar product. But, exposed to new climate, soil type, pests and diseases, the European Vinifera failed to thrive in America. As a result, colonists made do with native species, making acceptable wines over the course of time. In the mid 1860s, native American grape species were carried to Europe for research purposes. Unknowingly, they also carried with them, a root louse, Phylloxatrix, which attacked and fed on the roots of the vines. The European Vinifera lacked the thick fibrous root bark that protected the American species and it resulted in decades of devastation. As a response to this tragedy, the wine making community experimented by grafting European vinifera vines with native American rootstocks, resulting in more resistant vines that possessed Vinifera attributes. Today, the wine industry combines a plethora of grape varieties to satisfy an increasingly wine savvy population.
The Perfect Goblet
Wine becomes palatable and achieves the capacity to resist deterioration only after it goes through fermentation. Fermentation is a process of controlled spoilage, of which, alcohol is a waste product. Alcohol is toxic to all living beings including the yeasts that produce it. Yeasts cannot tolerate an environment of more than 15 per cent alcohol which is why the fermentation stops at about this level of concentration. Most French wines contain 12 per cent alcohol while Australian and New Zealand wines contain 13-14 per cent alcohol. Fortified wines are wines to which extra alcohol has been added, such as port and sherry.
Red wine is manufactured from purple grapes, but white wine is not necessarily obtained from white grapes. Many white wines are made from purple grapes but the skins are separated before they can color the fermenting juice called ‘˜must’. The skins house most of the bio-flavanoids, tannins, phenols and other components that give wine its healthy properties and unique flavor. The depth of the color of the wine depends on how long the must has been in contact with the skins. Specially over-ripened grapes are used to make dessert wines that have a heady sweetness and rich consistency.
Numerous studies show that moderate wine consumption (one to two 120ml glasses a day), preferably with a meal, is associated with lower risk of heart disease. Moderate consumers were found to be at 40% less likely to suffer a stroke than those who didn’t drink at all. Some theories credit this to compounds such as quercetin, resveratrol (known to prevent several types of cancer),as well as other bio-flavonoids that makes blood less sticky and less likely to form clots. The bio-flavanoids are also anti-oxidants that prevent damage to artery walls and help keep them dilated. Research also shows that moderate amounts of wine may raise levels of protective HDL(High Density Lipoprotein) or ‘˜good’ cholesterol.
The benefits of wine drinking are however lost when daily consumption exceeds two standard drinks for women and four for men. Over indulgence can increase the risk of obesity, stroke, breast cancer, high blood pressure, cirrhosis and other liver disorders. Heavy usage of alcohol during early stages of pregnancy can cause birth defects. Most wines contain sulfites and preservatives that can trigger allergic reactions in susceptible people. White wines contain higher amounts of sulfites than red wines while red wines are known triggers of migraines.