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Wine Appreciation Course

© Tom Cannavan, 1998

Part 2: White wine

The grape

To begin to understand how any wine is made we must first look at the composition of the grape. If you take any grape - black, red or green - and slice it through the middle it looks much the same:

The stalk
is woody and full of a substance called tannin. Tannin is a preservative with a bitter flavour.

The skin
is covered in a whitish bloom which is a dusting of wild yeasts and bacteria. The skin itself contains more tannin and, in black grapes, a colouring pigment.

The pips
contain bitter oils and are never desirable in white winemaking.

The pulp
is the most interesting part of the grape in white wine making. Over 70% of the pulp is just water, but the remaining 30% contains most of the elements which give a wine character, flavour and interest. These elements include various fruit sugars and acids, trace elements absorbed from the earth and pectin, a gelling agent. The pulp of almost all grapes is the same colour: a pale green/yellow.

Since the juice of almost all grapes is the same pale, almost clear colour, white wines can be made from any colour of grapes. If using black grapes to make a white wine, the winemaker must separate the juice from the skins immediately after pressing and before the fermentation stage so that no colour is picked up from the skins. Some examples of white wine made from black grapes are Champagne, blanc de noirs and white zinfandel.

Most whites are actually made from green grapes. There is, therefore, no hurry to separate juice from skins since there is no danger of them picking up colour, but most winemakers prefer to separate anyway, to prevent tannin leaching from the skins into the juice. Though there is an insignificant group of black grapes whose flesh and juice is actually dark, almost all red wines extract their colour only from the skins of black grapes. Red wines therefore, can only be made from black (or red) grapes.

Making white wine

white The first priority with freshly gathered white wine grapes is to get them to the presses as quickly as possible. This avoids oxidisation of the grapes as they sit on lorries, exposed to the sun and air.

At the winery, the grapes go through a machine called a crusher-destalker. This machine breaks the skins of the grapes but doesn't press them, and removes all stalks and some of the pips.

The resulting mash of broken grapes is immediately poured into a press. A gentle pressing is required for white wines. There have been many improvements on the original heavy stone presses, including the screw press which is like a giant mincing machine, and pressing by inflating a bag inside a tank, so that the grapes are gradually squeezed against the sides.

The pure juice that is collected from this process is poured directly into the fermentation tank. Some producers will leave the skins in during fermentation to add some extra dimension to the wine, but most do not.

After fermentation most white wines are run into stainless-steel tanks for a period of settling. A few months later they are filtered and bottled. Some wines will undergo a further period of maturation in oak casks before bottling.

Temperature has always been the bugbear of white wine makers. Hotter countries simply could not make quality white wines as these require long, cool fermentation (at around 15 Celsius) to allow flavours and complexity to develop. The act of fermentation itself creates heat, and in a hot climate, with uncontrolled tanks, the result is a very violent fermentation with temperatures rising to 35 or more and the yeasts dying off quickly.

Perhaps the greatest innovation in the history of white wine making has been the introduction of temperature controlled stainless steel tanks for fermentation. Introduced first in Australia and California, these huge, refrigerated tanks have taken the winemaking world by storm. Even in the hottest climates, white wines of distinction can now be produced. Countries like Spain, Greece and southern Italy can, for the first time, produce whites of world class quality.

This use of new technology has also led to a new breed of expert, known as the "flying winemaker". Largely from Australia and California, these winemakers travel the world to advise old-fashioned wineries on new technology (like stainless steel) that can bring them up to date.

Some white wines are fermented in old wooden vats. These will also have some method of cooling applied, such as being surrounded by a coil of pipes through which cold water is pumped. These vats are less reliable than steel, but some winemakers swear that fermenting in oak is the only method to use.

Many of the greatest white Burgundies and sweet white Sauternes are fermented in small oak barrels with stunning results. This labour intensive technique is usually reserved for the highest quality wines, especially those built for long ageing.

   Once fermentation is complete (taking between 1 and 4 weeks or so) most white wines are considered complete. The wine is simply run off into clean steel containers to settle before bottling. The alternative is to mature the wine in small oak casks (often referred to as "barriques" - the Bordeaux name). Maturation in oak is much more common in red wines, but chardonnay and semillon in particular seem to marry very well with the unique vanilla/buttery flavour that oak imparts to wine.

Maturing wine in barrels is an expensive and labour intensive process, as we will see next week when we look more closely at the process in relation to red wines. Often, the taste we notice most in a chardonnay has come from the oak, not from the grapes. In the cheapest chardonnays, handfuls of oak chips are added to the wine to impart a commercially desirable oaky flavour. Whilst tasty, these wines are rarely subtle or sufficiently well-balanced for ageing and further development in bottle.

Finally, prior to bottling, the wine must be filtered to leave it crystal clear. This process can be carried out by many methods. Use of filters and centrifuges to eliminate all solid matter are effective, but some people claim these methods also remove body and character from the wine. A more traditional method is fining. Fining uses a gelatinous substance that is stirred into a barrel of wine. The fining agent gradually sinks to the bottom of the barrel, dragging all particles with it. Traditionally, fining is done with whisked egg whites. Other common substances are bentonite (a clay) and isinglass (made from fish bladders!). Once the wine is perfectly clear and bright it can be bottled, labelled and shipped.

Wines might also undergo a process of "cold stabilisation" before filtering, when they are chilled in order to force tartaric acids naturally present in the wine to form into tiny crystals. These crystals can then be removed during filtration. This is done mostly for cosmetic reasons: white wines that are not stabilised might throw these crystals naturally during storage or transportation. When the consumer sees tiny white crystals in the bottom of a bottle it can be very off-putting, though in fact they are harmless and tasteless.

Factors affecting the styles of white wine

Clearly, one important factor is grape variety. Whilst some grapes, such as the chardonnay, are "all rounders" - capable of being moulded into a variety of styles - others, such as the gewürztraminer, have a very distinctive and individual taste which asserts itself in every decent bottle. Fermentation and maturation in oak is another important aspect. This is a complicated area: oak trees from different forests impart different flavours; new barrels have more impact than barrels one or two years old; barrels can be toasted on the inside before they are filled and the degree of toast will affect the flavour. We will look more closely at oak and barrels in relation to red wine.

The winemaker can also decide how much residual sugar to leave behind in the wine. If fermentation is stopped early, before the yeasts eat all the sugars, then a certain amount of sugar is left behind. For very ripe wines from hot climates it is perfectly possible to produce a wine that has 13 or 14 degrees of alcohol yet still has some residual sugar. In some countries the addition of extra sugar is allowed during the fermentation stage - a process known as chaptalisation - but this is done to boost alcohol to a minimum standard, not to sweeten the finished wine.

Malolactic fermentation is a natural biological process that occurs after alcoholic fermentation if the wine is kept at a slightly increased temperature. This is a chemical change, whereby harsh malic acid (such as that found in tart green apples) is converted into lactic acid (found in milk). This has the effect of softening the wine and reducing obvious acidity, so the winemaker may choose to encourage or avoid malolactic fermentation according to his requirement for a specific style of wine. This is acheived by inoculating the wine with relevant bacteria.

Maturing the wine "sur lees" - keeping the skins and dead yeast cells in contact in the barrel - can add a creaminess and complexity to a wine. Again, this is done at the winemaker's discretion and is a process that requires care and attention: the "soup" of wine and lees can spoil if scrupulous hygiene is not practised.

White wine and grapes - styles and characteristics

There are many varieties of grape used in the production of white wines. Here is a list of the most important varieties along with a description of their general character and some of the tasting terms commonly applied to them:

Chardonnay - full, soft, buttery, fruity
- peach, pear, pineapple, citrus, melon, butter, vanilla
Sauvignon Blanc - invigorating, dry, grassy, acidic
- grass, gooseberries, asparagus, green beans, cat pee, flint
Riesling - vividly fruity, lively acidity, oily
- apples, limes, passion fruit, minerals, petrol
Semillon - round, smooth, honeyed, toasty
- grass, citrus, lanolin, honey, toast
Gewurztraminer - exotic, spicy, perfumed, oily, rich
- ginger, cinnamon, lychees, nivea cream!

The search is on amongst the big, commercial wineries to find a successor to chardonnay. Market watchers have noted that some people are showing signs of being fed up with over-oaked, big, blowsy chardonnays and are looking for a different taste. Most of the grapes above are too distinctive to fit the bill, and might not be so widely accepted. Some other grapes/wines that have been less commonly seen in the past are starting to become more evident on supermarket shelves:

Marsanne & Roussanne - honey, tropical fruit, luscious
Viognier - flowery, peachy, delicate, fresh
Pinot Blanc - oily, perfumed, minerals, citrus, rich
Chenin Blanc - straw, flowers, honey, can be dry or sweet

White wine tasting terms and descriptors

Wine tasters have their own vocabulary or jargon, just like other groups of enthusiasts: computer geeks, trainspotters, ballroom dancers, etc. There can be a certain amount of snobbishness and hints of "one-upmanship" in wine tasting. On the other hand these terms are very useful: the true wine lover will never try to blind you with science, but may well use some common terms and descriptions. A few examples are listed below:

Creamy - often applied to champagne and sometimes to chardonnay
Crisp - clean and sharply flavoured, not sweet or oaky
Flabby - the opposite - a wine without crispness
Green - too acidic (some overly tart sauvignon blancs)
Oily - richly textured wines such as some gewurztraminers or pinot blancs
Steely - crisp and a bit austere, like the best Chablis or Sancerre.

Here are some descriptive words often used to conjure up the flavour or scent from a particular wine. To the experienced taster these are often indicative of a particular wine or style of wine:

Biscuity - Champagne
Flinty - Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume
Grassy - sauvignon blanc
Lemony - chardonnay
Lychees - gewurztraminer or sauvignon blanc
Toasty - chardonnay
Vanilla - oak ageing.

Using this jargon for describing and talking about the characteristics of wine isn't compulsory - if you are more comfortable with simply describing the glass in your hand as "good", "ok" or "bad", then that is quite acceptable!