G R A P E  V A R I E T I E S

Soil is furrowed the ancient way to catch winter rain (above), in the sweltering south of Spain.

A breathtaking springtime scene (right), with flower- ing mustard seed growing in the vineyards of Sonoma, California, the state that has become a major player on the world wine scene.

Such is the mystique and reverence attached to the appreciation of wine that it is easy to forget just what a simple product it is.

Visiting a modern winery today, with its acres of carefully trained vines, the giant tanks of shining stainless steel, the automated bottling line and perhaps the rows of oak barrels resting on top of one another in deep, cavernous cellars, you might think this was the end product of centuries of human ingenuity.

To the extent that the techniques for making good wine have been steadily refined through succeeding generations, indeed it is. Unlike beer, though, which had to await the discovery of malting grains before it could be produced, wine has always been there, for it is nothing other than spoiled grape juice.

Any substance that is high in natural sugars - whether it be the sticky sap of palm trees, or honey, or the juice of ripened fruit - will sooner or later start to ferment if it comes into contact with yeast. Wild yeasts, transported by insects and falling on to the fruit that they hover around, feed on its sugars and create two byproducts in the process.

One is carbon dioxide gas, which is the reason why anything that has accidentally started fermenting creates a fizzy sensation on the tongue, and the other is alcohol. And we know what that does to us.

Long before the earliest human societies had begun to live settled existences in one place, and thus to cultivate land, a type of alcoholic liquid could be made relatively quickly by allowing fresh fruit to ferment.

One particular species of wild vine that originated in the area around the Black Sea that today takes in the modern states of Georgia, Armenia and eastern Turkey proved especially well-suited to quick fermentation, owing to the naturally sweet berries it produced. It is in fact the only vine species native to Europe and the Near East, and because it came to play such a pre-eminent role in the development of wine- making all over the world, it was later given the botanical classification Vitis vinifera - "the wine-bearing grape".

Within that one species, however, there are as many as 10,000 different sub-types, known as varieties. Some of these would have developed by natural mutation; many have been created by deliberate cross-fertilization. Only a very small percentage of those 10,000 varieties are important in the commercial production of wine today, and many of those are fairly obscure. A mere handful, almost exclusively French in origin, now constitute the international language of wine, and it is these that this section deals with.

Not all of the 12 varieties we shall look at in detail are grown throughout the world, and the

grapes for winemaking

last of them - Gamay - is of no real viticultural significance outside its ancestral home, the Beaujolais region of France. But these are the 12 varieties - seven white and five red - whose flavours it is most useful to become familiar with. They are responsible between them for producing all of the most famous French wine styles, from sparkling champagne in the north to the richly heady reds of the sweltering south, and thus they provided the original models when serious winemaking first began to be pioneered beyond the shores of Europe.

All sorts of other factors influence the taste of a wine than the grape variety or varieties from which it is made. The climate in which the grapes are grown determines the balance of sugar and acid in the harvested berries. In some still inadequately defined way, the type of soil the vines are planted in also has a crucial effect, in the opinions of many growers.

Then there are the many variables at work in the winery. At what temperature does the juice ferment? What does it ferment in - stainless steel or wood? How long, in the case of red wines, is the juice left in contact with the grape skins, from which it derives its

colour and also the tannin that helps to preserve it? Is it kept in oak barrels after the fermentation? If so, are they new or used or a mixture of both, and how long does the wine spend in them before bottling?

There are as many styles of wine as there are winemakers, an equation multiplied by the number of different vintages each practitioner will make over the course of his or her career. But the identity of the grapes in the fermenting vat is the first and foremost indicator of style.

If you want to make a delicately crisp, simple white, it doesn't make sense to use Gewiirz- traminer. Similarly, if you're after a featherlight fruity red for drinking young, Cabernet Sauvignon may give you more than you bargained for. The most commonly met grape varieties have innate characteristics that can be teased out of the wines they are made into in wholly diverse parts of the globe.

oak barrels

As we are introduced to each of these 12 VIPs of the wine world, we shall also take a look at the different regions they have travelled  to, and explore the typical flavours to be found in each of them.

The impressive vaulted cellars of Ch. de Meursault, in Burgundy's Cote de Beaune (above), filled with wine ageing in oak barrels.