Last month something remarkable happened. On three separate unprovoked occasions I found myself confronted by a subject I think we’ll all agree is of utmost importance considering the general state of everything in the world right now.
‘Those awful wines that aren’t real wines just grape juice mixed with some wine! What are they about?’ was the question being laid squarely on the table.
As wine establishments continue to spring up across Chiang Mai, I hope that the following discussion will shed some light on this critical topic.
The subject of wine is an enormous one, and as the bottom of the page is but a few inches from what you are reading now I will merely be scratching the anthocyan pigment of this vitaceaen subject.
In general, wine can only be produced using grapes from the species Vitis vinifera and then only from a few specific varieties. This means that if the bottle ordered has the name of a fruit on it, then it isn’t really wine. It may be a mixture of the fruit and grape juice, but the presence of a fruit other than grapes makes the term ‘wine’ redundant and misleading.
Although an alcoholic beverage can be made using almost any fruit or berry one can squeeze a bit of juice out of, the process of fermentation often needs to be artificially assisted. A lack of sugar and unreliable levels of acidity in many fruits and berries may require dilution with water and the addition of sugar and nutrients to encourage the natural yeasts to do their thing.
Not so with wine. The grape has been cultivated over millennia to have an almost perfect balance of all that is needed to produce a tasty alcoholic beverage with minimal interference and the wine will continue to develop after bottling.
Unlike the proper stuff, fruit wines are unlikely to benefit from any ageing in the bottle. If anyone ever says anything like “I’ve been waiting for a special occasion like this to crack open a couple of bottles of my ‘78 Elderberry Reserve Superb” it is probably a good idea to come up with a suitable excuse, and leave.
And this brings me to the flavour and the magic of the grape. Of course, if one orders a strawberry wine one is not going to be too surprised that it tastes a bit like strawberries. Astonishingly however, a glass of wine very rarely ever tastes of grape. Whether one considers those tasting notes on the label of a bottle of wine pretentious or a useful indication of what is about to be poured into the glass, they almost never mention ‘overtones of grapiness’. They will, however, mention an array of other flavours from oak to chocolate. And that’s amazing. No oak leaf or chocolate bar is ever allowed near a vat of wine, yet such flavours are aromas undeniably present.
Most decent winemakers have decades, if not generations, of experience to rely on when working particular vineyards. The established rules, regulations and practices behind producing a flavoursome vintage requires dedication to the art. Your dad, making a batch of dandelion wine in his garage, is perhaps a little less qualified. A year of long days in the vineyard and the winery in order to produce a few barrels of a single vintage is not really comparable to an afternoon of mixing grape extract with fruit juice in a bucket.
It is wonderful to see so many new establishments dedicated to the enjoyment of the grape springing up across the city. Indeed Asia is opening up as one of the world’s fastest growing wine markets. Unfortunately the obscene tax on wine in Thailand* means shelling out on a decent bottle remains something reserved for special occasions. There are bottles available in supermarkets for a few hundred baht a pop here, but they are nothing special and often, due to a lack of care, what is in them may be a little disappointing. And no, I don’t care how ‘reasonably priced’ Mont Clair is, grape paste shipped from South Africa and mixed with God-knows-what does not a tasty wine make.
This piece is not meant to knock the so called fruit wines and if a bottle of SPY wine cooler is your thing, then more power to your elbow. It’s just a good idea to check that what is being served is what you are expecting to be poured. If the label on the bottle has a picture of a laughing pineapple on it, you are unlikely to be getting a sauvignon blanc or a merlot. If alcoholic fruit-flavoured juice is needed to hit the spot then there are plenty of cocktails that do the job.
*At time of writing the government announced that the tax on a bottle of wine is to be raised by around 10% per bottle. Perhaps have a beer instead.