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By Marko
Published at Beltane 2000

Let us pretend you've decided to host a ritual. You may choose the location, the time and the individuals to invite to your celebration for the desired aspects that they all bring to the proceedings. You may also agonise over the choice of music, incense and lighting to use in order to help create the correct ambience. Have you ever considered just exactly why you are doing this? Why are you going to all this trouble? Perhaps it is because the inevitable preparation for an event is just as important as the event itself, sometimes more so.

How many times has someone slaved away over a hot stove for countless hours in order to prepare never before cooked recipes with unheard of ingredients in order to produce the perfect dinner for friends and family, only to have it slurped, gobbled and shovelled away in only a matter of minutes? All that effort and what for? On the other hand, you wouldn't possess that wonderful feeling of satisfaction and a job well done if you hadn't gone to all that trouble. As the guests leave they all say how marvellous it was, you say it was nothing really and they say we must do it again sometime. Before you know it you have been booked for the next full moon, and how exactly do you out-do the majestic performance you have just given? After all you have a reputation to live up to now.

What has this got to do with vines sacred or otherwise? For practically anything these days you probably know someone who can advise you on a myriad of points, or else you can look it up in anyone of a thousand reference books that you possess. Whether it be the correct blend of essential oils, the recipe for celebratory cookies, biscuits or brownies or anything else you can find it in some text somewhere. Conscious and unconscious aspects of selection come into play here. Whatever you are preparing, there are some choices of which you are aware and others that you have also made at a different level.

So, when you nip down the off-licence for your bottle of Beltaine bubbly or Samhain Shiraz, do the same parameters apply to your choices? Although the public is becoming increasingly more knowledgeable about the vinous pleasures, few know what influences have come into play during the creation of their glass of wine. They may well affect your choice of red or white, dry or sweet. Pop into your local off-licence and ask them to recommend a wine for your solstice celebration then at the very least you're likely to get a funny look and fobbed off with the last bottle of something that has been sitting on the shelf far too long.

I hope to help you remedy that situation. It is not my intention to tell you which wine to drink upon which occasion (the days of only red wine with red meat and only white wine with fish are behind us now), that is a choice that you need to make. I intend to give you some basic information about grape vines, wine production and a handful of the most common grape varieties in order that you may be able to make more informed decisions. As much care, craft and intuition go into making a bottle of wine as forming your ritual plan but if, after all this, a glass of Lambrusco hits the spot for you every time then I'm not going to going to knock it.

A bit about vines

The wine vine or vitis vinifera is native to Europe and parts of central Asia and is responsible for the production of almost all the grapes used for the production of wine. A small number of what are known as American varieties, such as Concord and Catawba, are also used for wine although they usually impart a "foxy flavour" to the finished product. Some vine varieties including the Seyval Blanc, cultivated extensively for the production of English wine, are hybrids - the result of pollinating a vitis vinifera vine with an American vine.

The vine is an interesting plant. The part you see may be no more than a third of its total size. The other two thirds comprise an extensive root structure that has spread in search of nutrients and trace elements. Many of the best wines come from vineyards situated in marginal conditions. Good wine comes from stressed vines that must work hard to produce their crop. The vine is a tamed plant; its growth rate, amount of foliage and fruit it produces are closely controlled by pruning and bunch thinning. These techniques, and others, hopefully result in good quality fruit with long slow ripening season that has seen the right amount of rain at the right time, bringing the grapes to both physiological and biochemical maturity. This is when there is the correct balance of sugar and acidity in the grape. These conditions are determined by the vine variety and by the style of wine that the winemaker wishes to produce. Picked too early the grapes may produce a wine that is too green and acidic in flavour, too late and the wine may be unbalanced and lacking structure.

The choice of when to harvest is a crucial and difficult one dependant on grape maturity, weather forecasts and the vintner's instinct. Wine truly is a reflection of the climate, weather and soil conditions in which the vine grows. The terroir, as the French call it, stamps an indelible mark upon a wine that a winemaker can never totally counteract. What other product (apart from tea and a host of other things) retains such a link with the specific conditions in which it was created? Every wine produced is a snapshot, a year (and sometimes more) bottled for our enjoyment. What better and more enjoyable to connect with and experience the earth than through the contents of a fine crystal goblet or old tin mug?

A bit about making wine

Once the grapes have been harvested they must be transported to the winery. Ideally they should be kept cool (especially white grapes) and should arrive intact so that any wild yeasts present are unable to start a fermentation and so that the grape juice does not start to oxidise. Both of these will effect the quality of the finished wine. In order to prevent this the grapes will be sprinkled with sulphur dioxide, which acts as an antioxidant and kills the wild yeasts. Sulphur is also used in the production of organic wine. It is a naturally occurring element and is therefore allowable in organic farming and food production. It is used extensively throughout the wine making process, but, as with all additives, the EU has set maximum levels for the sum of free and bound sulphur dioxide present in the finished wine.

At its most basic wine is made by putting grape juice and yeasts together in a vat. The yeasts feed on the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products. This fermentation ceases when all the sugar is turned to alcohol or the alcohol level increases above 15% (dependant upon the strain of yeast used) and the yeasts die, or by the intervention of the winemaker. The fermentation process also produces heat, which is usually controlled by the winemaker. In white wine a long cool fermentation will preserve volatile delicate aroma compounds and fresh fruit flavours. In red wine production the heat may be used to speed up the fermentation process and is an important aid in the extraction of colour and flavouring compounds, the polyphenols such as tannin, and a variety of anthocyanins.

Another form of fermentation used in wine production is the malo-lactic fermentation. In this, after the alcoholic fermentation has ended, a strain of lactobacillus is introduced to the wine that will convert the harsh malic acids present into softer lactic acids. This process is used in many red wines and some white wines where a rounded softness is part of the wine's style. It may also produce "buttery" notes and greater complexity in the finished wine.

Fermentation may be undertaken in stainless steal vats or concrete ones if the retention of fresh fruit flavours is desired, or in oak barrels where the process extracts compounds that add complexity to the wine such as tannin, vanillin and a host of other flavour compounds. If oak fermentation is used then the size of the barrel, whether it is new or old, combined with the origin of the oak (American, French etc) is important. What proportions of the wine have been treated in what manner all contribute towards many characteristics on the finished wine such a strength of flavours and ageing potential.

Blending is an important part of winemaking and a skill that is as vital in producing the great wines of the world as it is in the production of any superplonk. Be it the blending of wine from all the vats to produce that year's Shiraz or Riesling, or the joining of Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and a touch of Malbec, or Petit Verdot for the Pauillac grand cru classé. Even the combination of wines from many years to provide the consistent house style of non-vintage Bollinger or Veuve Cliquot is a testament to the blending art. The hope of every winemaker is that the wine they make is greater than the sum of its component parts.

Wines need a period of maturation before they are drunk. This allows the various flavour compounds to harmonise. The length and type of maturation vessel used will depend upon the style of wine being produced. Maturation may take place in tank, cask or bottle. The choice affects the style and rapidity of maturation. Oxygen is an important part of this process it may be either included or excluded. If present then it allows for the oxidisation of unpleasant aromas and allows other chemical reactions to occur which lead to the polymerisation and precipitation from the wine of the harsh tannins which may be present in a young wine.

Although part of a wines final character is dependant on the terroir of the region in which the grapes were grown the skill of the winemaker is in using all the available techniques to express that character in the best possible way. Which is why many perfectly acceptable wines and even some great ones are produced even in a generally poor vintage year for a region. The production of wine is part science and part art, the winemaker part chemist and part alchemist.

A bit about grape varieties

There are approximately 8000 different grape varieties that have been catalogued although only about 1000 of them are relevant to the wine drinker today. I shall give a brief overview of the properties and characteristics of some of the most commonly encountered grape varieties and the styles of wine they produce.

Major white varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling.

Major black varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz), Merlot, Pinot Noir.

The Chardonnay grape has its roots in the Burgundy region of France although it is now planted almost worldwide. It performs at its best in calcareous soils but is very adaptable. It produces a wine of high colour that is very characterised by soil, climate and winemaker.

The resultant wine is strongly aromatic with notes of apple, melon and tropical fruits (especially in new world examples) and nutty in some burgundies such as Corton-Charlemagne. The Chardonnay grape has the greatest affinity of any white grape with oak ageing, giving opulent buttery characteristics as in Meursault. If the wine is un-oaked then it may well exhibit the lean, steely and mineral qualities of a Chablis.

The Chardonnay grape is one of the major grapes used in the production of champagne.

The Sauvignon Blanc grape is widely planted in the Loire and Bordeaux with many successful plantings in many regions of the New World, particularly New Zealand. It likes poor soils, usually chalk gravel or sandy loam, and usually forms dry wines that display a marked acidity.

Wines made from this grape are usually un-oaked, although the grape will respond, as in the example of Californian Fumé Blancs. When un-oaked the wines exude gooseberry flavours with green, vegetal and herbaceous notes and also with what is often called a "cat's pee" nose. The wines are generally for early drinking with a steely, mineral and stony aggressive grip, not to mention a racy zestiness.

The Sauvignon Blanc grape is added to one of the greatest sweet wines, Sauternes, to add acidity.

The Riesling grape is well adapted to well-drained poor soils, especially slate. It reflects well the characteristics of the soil and microclimates in which it was grown but it always retains its identity wherever in the world it is grown.

Although currently a less fashionable grape, wines produced display a vibrant limey acidity with peachy notes in their youth that develop petrol characteristics as they age, along with notes of flowers, honey and spice. Riesling can produce grapes that retain very high acidity levels while also achieving high levels of sugar, enabling luscious sweet wines to be formed.

The Riesling grape produces very age-worthy wines.

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape has extensive plantings across the globe. It likes well-drained soils and some say it finds its greatest expression in the gravels of the Médoc in Bordeaux. Cabernet based wines display the same fruit characteristics wherever they are made, primarily blackcurrant.

The grapes have a high skin to pulp ratio producing wines that can be high in tannin. Due to its great affinity with oak, many top Cabernets are aged for between 18 and 24 months in oak, giving cedar, tobacco and leather notes. This results in a wine that may need many years before it achieves balance. New World examples often possess a distinctly minty characteristic with notes of eucalyptus.

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape blends harmoniously with Merlot.

The Merlot grape is another international variety with extensive plantings in Chile. It is the dominant grape in St Emilion and Pomerol. It is a very fashionable in America and produces a rounded low-tannin wine with relatively undistinguished soft black fruit flavours.

The grape has a slight sweetness to it, giving the wines a forward fruity character. It matures relatively quickly and responds well to oak ageing, especially when blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, where it helps to flesh out the wine.

The Merlot grape is responsible for the most expensive wine in the world, Château Pétrus.

The Shiraz (Syrah) finds some of its best expressions in Australia and in the Northern Rhône. Thought to have a middle-eastern origin, it likes well-drained, poor granite soils and produces full, heavy and deeply scented wines with blackberry notes.

The grape marries well with oak and will often display smoke, tar and burnt rubber characteristics, and the wines are inky dense and tannic. Such wines age sublimely and find their greatest expressions in Hermitage.

The Syrah (Shiraz) grape blends well with Cabernet Sauvignon in Australian wines.

The Pinot Noir is a difficult vine to coax into producing its best. This has not stopped it being planted worldwide as top Pinot's are truly great wines. It likes well-drained, deep poor soils, producing wines reminiscent of soft red fruits and summer puddings. The vine itself mutates easily.

There is no single recognisable style or exact flavour to this grape, to some degree it is a slave to its terroir. It can be anything from light and fresh to inky and plummy in style. As Pinot Noir ages it begins to take on vegetal characteristics with notes of game, truffles and leather.

The Pinot Noir grape is the other major grape variety used in the production of champagne.

Through necessity and inclination this is only a cursory view of the world of wine. Many facts have been omitted and processes simplified, but it is a start. If you are interested in following the wine trail further then your local library is a good place to start seeking information, as are periodicals such as Wine and Decanter.

The Wine Wheel

In order to help you visualise some of the attributes you may wish to look for in wines for rituals during the different seasons, it may be beneficial to consider the cycle of the year as a circle divided into eight segments. Each segment represents a "season" of the year and the points of division between the segments represent one of the major festivals. These are the equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days, progressing clockwise from the winter solstice at the top.

The eight "seasons" are correspondingly labelled:

1 - The Season of Snows
2 - The Season of First Flowers
3 - The Season of Rains
4 - The Season of Full Bloom
5 - The Season of Grains
6 - The Season of Fruitful Abundance
7 - The Season of Decay
8 - The Season of Bare Earth

The individual points are the transitions between "seasons" and a wine displaying the characteristics of one or both seasons may be employed.

The following is a list of characteristics to look for in wines with which you may wish to experiment during each season. There are also a few suggestions for types of wine that may fit requirements, although it should be borne in mind that various styles are available for each type of wine.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and only relates types of wine to the time of year. The choice of wine type may be further narrowed by considering how the wine will match with other characteristics you are bringing to your celebrations or ritual. This wine wheel is based on my personal observations and taste, everyone's palate is different, so over time you will be able to construct your own "wine wheel".

Remember, in matching wine for occasion, there are no hard and fast rules.

The Season of Snows

Wine Characteristics: Light wines that are refreshingly crisp with acidity and bite and a lean austerity.

White Wines: Riesling, especially German, whether dry or sweet. Ice wines are particularly good as the grapes may be harvested this late in the year. Cool climate Sauvignon Blanc wines that have not spent time on their lees.

Red wines: Beaujolais (made from Gamay), cool climate Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc wines that may be drunk chilled.

The Season of First Flowers

Wine Characteristics: Light to medium-bodied, fresh fragrant wines with floral characteristics, good fruit flavours and moderate acidity.

White Wines: New World Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer. The lighter sweet wines from Semillon and Müller-Thurgau based wines.

Red Wines: Grenache based wines such as some Côtes du Rhône and the lighter, young drinking wines (Grenache and Tempranillo). Chilled Grenache Rosé wines.

The Season of Rains

Wine Characteristics: Aromatic wines of light or medium body with grassy qualities and good acidity.

White Wines: Sauvignon Blanc and Old World Chenin Blanc (often has wet wool aromas). Muscadet Sur Lie, and un-oaked Chardonnay such as the majority of Chablis.

Red Wines: Valpolicella, medium-bodied Tempranillo wines, New World Pinot Noir and the fuller styles of Old World Pinot Noir.

The Season of Full Bloom

Wine Characteristics: Scented wines of medium body that may display honeyed characteristics, a variety of soft fruit flavours and tropical fruits in white wines.

White Wines: Light to medium oaked Chardonnay such as Mâcon and some New World examples. Semillon wines, especially the lighter Australian sweet wines.

Red Wines: Fruity Chianti and French blends of Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan.

The Season of Grains

Deeply scented wines with medium to full body that exhibit toasty notes and display a soft richness.

White Wines: Oaked Chardonnay, Spanish sparkling Cava, New World Chardonnay blends, Dry Amontillado sherry and Muscat wines.

Red Wines: Early drinking clarets, New World Merlot and Reserva Rioja.

The Season of Fruitful Abundance

Wine Characteristics: Fruit-driven, full-bodied wines with a rich palate and an opulent, spicy finish.

White Wines: Well-oaked Semillon and Chardonnay (good quality Burgundies, Australian and American). Rioja and New World sweet wines.

Red Wines: Good Rioja, claret and wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (Syrah).

The Season of Decay

Wine Characteristics: Pungent wines with spicy, earth notes and fat fruit flavours. Mature wines with more complex secondary characteristics and leather.

White Wines: Liqueur Muscat, Viognier, some Vouvrays, oaked Chardonnay and Madeira.

Red Wines: Wines with Mourvèdre and Shiraz (Syrah), full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec wines.

The Season of Bare Earth

Wine Characteristics: Wines with a heady, spicy richness coupled with unctuous qualities.

White Wines: Sweet sherry. Rich, sweet wines from Semillon. Buttery Chardonnay, champagne and sparkling wines. Wines from Roussillon and Gewurztraminer.

Red Wines: Port and Amarone. Some Portuguese wines and Cabernet Shiraz (Syrah) blends.

I hope that this has been of some use to you and perhaps sparked an interest in wine. The world of wine is complex and ever changing, rich and varied. However much detail you decide to go into regarding your choice of wine, remember to enjoy it.

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