Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)
FAITH LAPIDUS: I’m Faith Lapidus.
DOUG JOHNSON: And I’m Doug Johnson with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Since ancient times, people have grown grapes to produce wine. Join us as we tell about the history of wine and how it is made. We will also visit a vineyard in the United States and meet a winemaker.
FAITH LAPIDUS: It is hard to say how long people have been drinking wine. Wine is far older than recorded history. Some experts say it is as old as civilization itself.
The first wine ever made was probably an accident. People in ancient times might have picked ripe grapes. Some juicy grapes at the bottom of the container were crushed together. As the grapes broke open, yeasts on the skins went to work turning sugar from the fruit into alcohol. This is the fermentation process that turns grape juice into wine.
DOUG JOHNSON: Winemaking probably began in the ancient Near East and Egypt. Burial places in ancient Egypt provide information about wine and its importance in Egyptian culture. Egyptian rulers were buried with wine offerings to help them in the afterlife. Archeological evidence also suggests that some of the earliest known wine producers were in Georgia and Iran thousands of years ago.
These jars from the Zagros Mountains in Iran are believed to contain evidence of the oldest-known wine
FAITH LAPIDUS: North Africa, Spain, France and Italy had their first vineyards during the Greek and Phoenician empires. The ancient Romans greatly expanded the winemaking industry. By the end of the Roman Empire, almost all of the major wine producing areas still in production today had been established in western Europe.
During the period of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church owned many of the great vineyards of Europe. Wine also played an important part in the church’s religious ceremonies.
Wine was not just about having an enjoyable drink. It could be stored for future use. And, it was nutritious and often much safer to drink than water during early times, especially in cities.
Some experts say that up until the the sixteen hundreds in Europe, wine was one of the only prepared drinks. After that, wine had competition from beer, coffee and tea.
DOUG JOHNSON: One thing was very important for the start of the modern wine industry. Wine needed a better storage method. In the mid sixteen hundreds people began making glass wine bottles that were stronger and low cost. Before that, wine was transported in containers made out of wood, clay or leather.
Glass bottles and the tight seal of a cork permitted wine to last longer in storage. It became clear that wine aged well and tasted even better over time. These developments led to a whole new kind of wine culture.
Today, the top wine producing countries in the world are Italy, France and Spain, followed by the United States.
Although Europe is still important in the wine industry, many other countries around the world are making top wines. These include Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Australia. Wine production is even increasing in countries like India and China.
FAITH LAPIDUS: Before we discuss how wine is made, we tell about several kinds of grapes. Some grapes are grown internationally. Chardonnay is probably the best known white grape. sauvignon blanc and riesling are other well known white grapes. Grapes for making red wine include pinot noir, syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Other kinds of grapes are special in certain areas. For example, albarino and tempranillo are grown in Spain while Italian grapes include vermentino and nebbiolo. Other more local examples include Austria’s gruner veltliner grape and Hungary’s kadarka.
DOUG JOHNSON: Grapes contain water, sugar, acidity and tannin. These four elements are influenced by the kind of grape and the soil and climate of the vineyard. Wine growers can also affect the taste of their wine using other methods.
The French have a special name for the importance of the place where a grape is grown and its effect on the taste of a wine. “Terroir” is the word used to describe how a vineyard’s soil and climate give a wine special qualities. For example, a chardonnay wine grown in France will taste very different from one grown in California.
FAITH LAPIDUS: Now that we know about grapes and geography, we have some important tools for understanding the label on a bottle of wine. Some vineyards define their wine by the kind of grapes used in making the wine. Others define their wine based on where it is produced, such as wine made in France.
A bottle of wine may cost several dollars or hundreds of dollars. The cost of a wine usually has to do with how it was produced. Some wines are mass produced by companies with well known brand names. Other wines are made in very small quantities and require a great deal of time and effort to produce.
DOUG JOHNSON: How grapes become wine begins with the harvest. A winemaker must make an important decision about the best time to pick the grapes. Next, the grapes must be prepared for fermentation. The grapes are closely examined and sorted. Diseased or overly ripe grapes are thrown away.
Newly harvested grapes. Barrels are in the background
Some winemakers choose to keep the stems of the grapes, while others remove them. The grapes are then crushed by machines. In the past, people crushed the grapes with their feet inside large containers. Some winemakers today still use this method. The grapes and their liquid are then stored in large containers where fermentation takes place.
FAITH LAPIDUS: The juice of white grapes is separated from the skins before fermentation. The skins of red grapes stay with the juice during fermentation. The skins give the wine its red color and much of its taste.
During fermentation, sweet grape juice slowly turns into a dryer and more complex tasting wine. During this stage, yeasts are changing sugar into alcohol, heat and carbon dioxide. Next, the wine is pressed so that solids are removed from the liquid.
Wine is often then stored in wooden containers called barrels. Aging the wine in barrels permits the flavors to come together. The oak wood can also give the wine a special taste. After the wine has aged for an extended period of time it is put into bottles. The wine is now ready to drink.
DOUG JOHNSON: Our description of winemaking is very general, but it gives you an idea of the process. In the United States, California is the most famous and top producing state for wine. But most people do not know that there are wineries in all fifty American states, including Alaska and Hawaii.
In nineteen forty-five, there was just one vineyard in the state of Maryland. Today, there are about forty vineyards in the state and that number is growing.
FAITH LAPIDUS: Earlier this month, we visited Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland to learn more about wine production. Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron are a husband and wife team who own this fifty-nine hectare farm.
Picking grapes from the vine
During our visit, many of the grapes were being harvested. Ms. O’Herron took us to check on the remaining grapes.
SARAH O’HERRON: “So this is Cabernet Sauvignon, that’s still on the vines. So they’re coming along.”
REPORTER: “So when will these be ready?”
SARAH O’HERRON: “ Two weeks maybe? They’re getting close, though.”
FAITH LAPIDUS: Ms. O’Herron tastes a grape and looks at its seeds.
SARAH O’HERRON: “And then these skins are still a little bit crunchy still. A little tannic, but not so much. It’s getting, these guys are getting close, which is good.”
DOUG JOHNSON: Ms. O’Herron shows us containers of newly picked pinot noir grapes. These grapes are now going through the wine process we talked about earlier.
Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron once worked as business professionals. But they spent a great deal of time travelling around the world and researching wine and the wine industry.
They decided to change careers and make wine their life’s work. They bought the farm that would become Black Ankle Vineyards in two thousand two. Their first full harvest was in two thousand six.
We asked Ms. O’Herron about the difficulties of being a winemaker.
SARAH O’HERRON: “First and foremost, it’s farming. We grow everything here right on this farm, so you are very much beholden to the weather, just like any other kind of farming. This year has been mostly a hot dry year, that’s generally good for us. But we can have a big rain storm, we just had a bunch of rain, and that will make an impact.”
FAITH LAPIDUS: Ms. O’Herron says their vineyard is getting increasing attention for the quality of their wine. She says this is partly because people do not expect such great wine to be produced in a state that is relatively unknown for its wine traditions.
Black Ankle Vineyards is a good example of how local winemakers are adding to the culture of wine production in the United States.
DOUG JOHNSON: Next week, we will continue our discussion about wine and talk to a wine professor and writer. This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Doug Johnson.
FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. You can comment on this program on our website, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hungary's kadarka grape as kardarka.