GRAPE SPIRITS

Drink in moderation

Wine pills

Alcoholic drinks, rightly used, are good for body and soul alike, but as a restorative of both there is nothing like brandy.

Picture George Saintsbury

George Saintsbury

George Saintsbury (1845-1933) was an English writer, journalist and literary critic expert in French and English literature but also a famous wine expert, well known for his work Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920) in which he collected detailed notes of all the wines he had tasted from 1894 to 1915, offering a very personal vision of the whole oenological panorama of his time.

That the fermentation of grape must produces wine is a well-known fact; however, other beverages full of aromatic nuances and with very different intensities can be prepared from grape juice. It was the Arabs who introduced the concept of distilling wine to extract its essence, al-ghool, evil spirit, which they used mainly as a disinfectant and in medicine, which in Latin came to be called aqua ardens, eau-de-vie. It is probable that it was used to macerate medicinal herbs giving origin to the cordials from which the whole group of liquors generically called ‘digestives’ would later derive. In this sense, it was the Christian monks who developed the technique of distillation to produce spirits.

Some of the most famous are Brandy, from the Dutch “brandewijn” meaning burnt wine. The production by distillation of young wine was made in Spain for export to Holland; the brandy obtained (called holandas), with an alcoholic concentration between 35 and 60%, was stored in oak casks, where it oxidized and obtained its characteristic dark golden color. Within this group we find specific denominations of origin such as Cognac, (north of Bordeaux and made from white grapes of the ugni blanc variety), or Armagnac (in the Gascony region).

Another type of distillate would be the one made from skins and pips (generically pomace distillates), which would form the group of Grappas (Italy) and Orujos (Spain) Its origin would be in the use of the remaining bagasse from the grape pressing. They are powerful and dry distillates, of high alcohol content, very popular in Italy and Spain, which are drunk cold after a meal, or mixed with coffee (caffè corretto or carajillo).

When these same distillates are flavored with anise seeds, we enter the Eastern Mediterranean: Arak (the national drink of Lebanon, and highly appreciated in Jordan and Syria), Raki (Turkey) and Ouzo (Greece). All of them are liqueurs made by double distillation to which anise seeds are added for flavoring. They are drunk mixed with water or ice, which makes them take on a whitish color of intense turbidity.

If, instead of digestives, we are looking for a liqueur that stimulates the taste, we are talking about aperitifs. Among them we find the well-known Vermouth, a mixture of muscatel wine, sweetened with caramel, aromatic herbs and spices; or the Quina, with a bitter taste due to the bark of quina, a South American shrub, which is drunk with ice and soda. Special mention should be made of Pisco (Chile and Peru) and Singani (Bolivia), a distillate of aromatic grapes (mainly Muscatel) and non-aromatic grapes which have in common their high sugar content, and which are drunk in the form of mixed drinks (Pisco Sour, with lemon, sugar and egg; and Chuflay, with ginger ale).

Picture of a grape distiller

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WINE HISTORY

Picture of olive trees and vineyards

Wine pills

The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive tree and the vine.

Thucydides stautu

Thucydides

Thucydides (486 BC- 396? BC) is considered the father of scientific historiography, in which for the first time the stories appear stripped of divine interventions, trying to collect sources and records in a rigorous way, analyzing the facts in the form of cause-effect. His work History of the Peloponnesian War is considered a model of a rigorously scientific account of a historical event.

Vine cultivation is as old as the history of civilization, dating back to the Neolithic period, when the first permanent settlements began to be established. In its wild state, the vine (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) was a vine that grew abundantly in riparian forests hugging trees. Its berries, with a pleasant sweet and sour taste and the ability to be preserved for a long time (raisining), were probably a food reserve for the winter. The first archaeological records of grape consumption are found in northern Iran, Turkey and Georgia, more than 8,000 years ago. It is probable that, at some point, an accidental fermentation took place that originated an euphoric drink. 

From that moment on, its domestication would begin, through the selection of the most promising plants for their flavor or abundance. Over time, some mutations appeared that gave rise to hermaphrodite plants, such as the current vines (Vitis vinifera vinifera or sativa). Around 3000 BC, in the Bronze Age, the first records of vine cultivation and wine production already begin to be found in what is the oldest known account, the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ and even, around 2000 BC, the first Hittite laws referring to vineyard cultivation: “If a man puts his flock into a cultivated vineyard and ruins it, if it has not yet been harvested, he shall pay 10 shekels of silver for each vine; and so he shall make restitution. But if it is harvested he has to pay only 3 shekels of silver”. 

The trade and geographical expansion of the peoples of the area (Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians) throughout the Mediterranean brought the vine to other territories, and even spread to the East, reaching China. The Egyptians made wine in large earthenware vessels and engravings and mosaics have been found in the pyramids depicting the cultivation of the vine, the harvesting, preparation and enjoyment of wine at festivals and religious events. It reached Greece around 700 BC and Italy around 200 BC. To the Romans we owe the first wooden barrels to store and transport it, as recorded by Julius Caesar in his “War of the Gauls”, and the appearance of the first oenological techniques to clarify it. From Italy, the cultivation of the vine spread to Gaul and Iberia; from there, the Visigoths extended it to the rest of Europe.

It is believed to have arrived in North America by the Vikings, around 1000 AD; in South America, by the Spanish colonizers, already in the 16th century (Hernán Cortés, in 1525 in Mexico; in the second half of the century, to Chile, Peru and Argentina; at the end of the 17th century to California); to Australia at the end of the 18th century….

And then came phylloxera, but that’s another story…

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SPARKLING WINE

Image of some glasses of sparkling wine

Wine pills

Come quickly, brothers! I'm drinking stars!

Picture of monk Pierre Pérignon

Dom Perignon

Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715) was a Benedictine monk who is credited with the invention of Champagne at the abbey of Hautvelliers in the Champagne region of France. Apparently, he had already discovered that some wines produced bubbles when stored during the winter, which he associated with a second fermentation, but he did not know how to maintain the bubbles until he observed how some pilgrims covered their water wineskins with corks, an idea he decided to adopt so that the second fermentation would take place inside a closed bottle. It was not until 1816 that Madame Clicquot decided to place the bottles in a vertical position on tables with holes designed for this purpose in which the problem of eliminating the lees was solved by the simple procedure of removing the cork with the lees sedimented on it, emptying part of the bottle, and replacing the cork with a new one.

Sparkling wine is often associated with celebrations and parties of all kinds. Its festive character is associated with the presence of CO2 bubbles dissolved in it, which give it a spicy, acidic and refreshing touch. These same bubbles act as an indicator of the quality of the wine and, by extension, of the production process used for it.

The traditional method, called Champenoise, involves a second fermentation in closed bottles by active yeasts from a base wine containing a sufficient quantity of residual sugars. The CO2 produced, having no way of escaping from the bottle, dissolves in the wine giving it a characteristic acidity.

Originally white grapes such as Chardonnay or red varieties such as Pinot Noir from the Champagne region were used, but there are no restrictions in this respect, and other local varieties are also used: Xarelo, Riesling, Moscatel, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc… Varieties all capable of providing good acidity and alcoholic strength capable of producing a good base wine on which to carry out the second fermentation.

The process starts on a finished wine (the base wine) to which a mixture of sugar and yeasts is added on the same base wine called ‘liqueur de tirage’, which raises the sugar concentration above 20-30 g/L. After addition, the bottle is capped and stored in a slightly tilted position and in suitable temperature conditions for the yeasts to begin to act. The time of action of the yeasts is variable (the minimum is 9 months), and can reach up to several years: the longer the wine is in contact with the lees, the greater the complexity it will reach due to the release of amines, mannoproteins and amino acids. During this process, the alcohol content of the base wine will increase slightly (between 1 and 2 degrees) and the CO2 formed will dissolve in the wine.

After the time set by the winemaker, the wine is ‘clarified’ by removing the lees from the bottle. To do this, they are placed on special shelves that produce a moderate inclination of the bottle, so that, with skillful turns, the lees are deposited in contact with the cork. This is the moment of ‘disgorging’, in which the cork is frozen in a brine and quickly uncorked: the frozen lees together with the cork and a small part of the liquid shoot out due to the effect of the internal gas pressure. The lost liquid is replaced with the ‘liqueur d’expedition’, the winemaker’s last chance to add his particular touch to the product.

(1) Contribution of Red Wine Consumption to Human Health Protection. Lukas Snopek, Jiri Mlcek, Lenka Sochorova, Mojmir Baron, Irena Hlavacova, Tunde Jurikova, Rene Kizek, Eva Sedlackova, Jiri Sochor. Molecules. 2018 Jul; 23(7): 1684. Published online 2018 Jul 11. doi: 10.3390/molecules23071684

(2) Impact of Red Wine Consumption on Cardiovascular Health. Liberale L, Bonaventura A, Montecucco F, Dallegri F, Carbone F. Curr Med Chem. 2019; 26(19):3542-3566.

(3) Resveratrol ameliorates high glucose and high-fat/sucrose diet-induced vascular hyperpermeability involving Cav-1/eNOS regulation. Peng XL, Qu W, Wang LZ, Huang BQ, Ying CJ, Sun XF, Hao LP. PLoS One. 2014; 9(11):e113716.

(4) Resveratrol Provides Cardioprotection after Ischemia/reperfusion Injury via Modulation of Antioxidant Enzyme Activities. Mokni M, Hamlaoui S, Karkouch I, Amri M, Marzouki L, Limam F, Aouani E. Iran J Pharm Res. 2013 Fall; 12(4):867-75.

(5) Malvidin, a red wine polyphenol, modulates mammalian myocardial and coronary performance and protects the heart against ischemia/reperfusion injury. Quintieri AM, Baldino N, Filice E, Seta L, Vitetti A, Tota B, De Cindio B, Cerra MC, Angelone T. J Nutr Biochem. 2013 Jul; 24(7):1221-31.

(6) Oenology: red wine procyanidins and vascular health. Corder R, Mullen W, Khan NQ, Marks SC, Wood EG, Carrier MJ, Crozier A. Nature. 2006 Nov 30; 444(7119):566.

(7) Alcohol consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease and death in women: potential mediating mechanisms. Djoussé L, Lee IM, Buring JE, Gaziano JM. Circulation. 2009 Jul 21; 120(3):237-44.

(8) Wine, alcohol, platelets, and the French paradox for coronary heart disease. S. Renaud, PhD , M. de Lorgeril, MD. The Lancet 1992 ;  339 (8808) :1523-1526. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/0140-6736(92)91277-F

Image of some glasses of sparkling wine

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THE AGES OF WINE

Image of some oak barrels

Wine pills

Age is just a number. It is totally irrelevant unless, of course, you are a bottle of wine.

Illustration of Joan Collins

Joan Collins

Joan Collins* (London, 1933) is a British actress and writer with a long professional career that began when she was only 13 years old. During his youth he participated in numerous films for 20th Century Fox (Land of the Pharaohs, The girl with the red trapeze, The Bravados or Esther and the King) but it was not until his maturity, already in the 80s, where he reached his maximum popularity playing the evil Alexis from the television series Dinasty (a soap opera of family struggles between oil tycoons) for 9 seasons (1982-1991) making it a great success of American television with more than 21 million viewers per episode. For this role she was awarded a Golden Globe, breaking the stereotype that only young actresses succeed in the film industry.

Wine is a product that evolves in a very remarkable way over time due to the chemical transformations that take place in it. A first phase of this process takes place before bottling, barrel aging, while a second stage takes place in the bottle itself. Each of these stages has special nuances that make the wine acquire different organoleptic characteristics.

The wine that has not passed through the barrel (or that has been for a very short time) and is normally consumed in less than 12 months (and no more than 24-30), is called Joven wine. In these wines, the tannin content is low and a smooth, fruity and refreshing final result is sought, ideal to accompany light meals during the summer (salads, cold cuts, cheeses, pasta …). The color has bluish hues in the reds and yellowish-green in the whites. The vast majority of white and rosé wines fall into this category.

A little more time in contact with the wood (up to 24 months, minimum 6 in barrels) gives way to Crianza, more structured wines with a greater amount of aromatic nuances resulting from the transformation of the fruity and herbaceous aromas. The color is also losing its bluish tone and gaining ruby ​​and dark red reflections. They are also wines that mature very well in the bottle, reaching their optimum point up to 5 or more years after bottling. They pair perfectly with meats, roasts, stews or cured cheeses

The next category, Reserva wines, have already spent considerable time maturing (a minimum of 36 months, of which at least 12 for reds and 6 for whites in barrels) to consume between 5 and 10 years after harvest. The result is intense, strong and full of complex flavors, as result of having lost their fruity tone to give way to more spicy tones, with a notable load of tannins and a color that is acquiring brick tones.

Finally, the Gran Reserva is a wine that has spent at least 5 years maturing, of which no less than 18 months in the barrel. They are complex and intense wines that reach their maximum point of expression up to 10 years after harvest and maintain it, in some cases up to 25 or more years. Color is now a deep dark brown red. They pair with dishes with an intense flavor such as game, chocolate, or complex stews.

Image of some oak barrels

* Illustration by Joan Collins created from a public photograph.

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TEARS OF WINE

Image of a container with the effect of wine tears

Wine pills

Wine is so delicate that a drop of water makes you faint.

Image of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is one of the most universal late 19th century English writers due to his fine irony and wit. At the peak of popularity after his only novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray", and the masterful play "The Importance of Being Earnest," he was accused (and imprisoned) of homosexuality, something inexcusable in English Victorian society. He died in poverty in Paris.

The “tears of wine” (or “legs” for the English, “windows” for the Germans) is a characteristic often used to value a wine and equally often with totally wrong arguments. In fact, the presence of “tears” provides very little information about the composition of the wine and nothing about its quality. They are associated with greater unctuousness in the mouth of the wine (greater body) and are due to a physical effect associated to a mixture of alcohol and water, not, as it is often mistakenly associated, with the glycerol content or the quality of the wine.

The first correct explanation for this phenomenon was pointed out at the end of the 19th century by James Thomson (an English physicist), developed a few years later by the Italian physicist Carlo Marangoni and theoretically explained by Willard Gibbs somewhat later, which is why it is called the Gibbs-Marangoni effect.

In short, a mass transfer occurs at the interface of two fluids (water and alcohol) that separate as a result of their different surface tension. In this way, wine, which has a lower surface tension than water, forms a thin layer on the surface of the glass. At the end of the meniscus, alcohol would evaporate much faster than water, generating, on one hand, the formation of a drop of water (the tear) that would slide down due to the effect of gravity and, on the other, a suction effect on the wine causing it to move up in the glass.

The phenomenon then depends exclusively on the amount of alcohol present (more alcohol means a greater intensity of the effect and, therefore, more tears), on factors that may affect surface tension (such as the presence of surfactants) or that affect the evaporation rate of alcohol (such as temperature or humidity). The presence of higher sugar content, including glycerol, only causes the viscosity of the wine to increase, causing the tears to flow more slowly.

As a side note, it is believed that it was Marangoni who sparked Albert Einstein’s fascination with physics when he shared a vacation with him as a 16-year-old in the summer of 1895 (1). So, who knows? Perhaps we owe the birth of modern physics to an interesting evening around a glass of wine…

(1) Christian Bracco. Albert Einstein and the Marangoni family. Società Italiana degli Storici della Fisica e dell’Astronomia, Sep 2017, Bari, Italy. hal-01742996.

Image of a container with the effect of wine tears

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