A masterclass in wine










One never stops learning about wine. Every plot of land produces a different wine to its closest neighbour. Every season produces a different nuance to last year’s harvest. Every wine drinker experiences their own personal and sometimes completely different take on a wine. Put all of these factors together and you have an endless number of experiences and lessons that you can learn from wine. An infinite journey that is as individual as it is expansive. Join Mathew Castle as he offers up a masterclass into the world of wine.

The story of wine is a journey that has endured for over two thousand years. And by journey I mean that moment wine lovers embark on an adventure of discovery, from those first awkward moments of sampling to a lifelong relationship with a creation so intriguing and complicated in its simplicity. At the beginning of my wine journey during the post-Apartheid wine boom in South Africa, I was always amazed at the openness of the wine industry. I had been working in the flower industry which is closed and secretive due to the risk of your techniques or cuttings or seeds been stolen and cloned by the competition. But in the wine industry it seemed everyone was proud to show their techniques off, happy to share their knowledge and new “secrets”. I came to realise that this was because, however much they try your neighbour can never copy your wine. He can use the same plant material as you, use the same methods and make the wine in the same cellar as you. The variables on the ground are just too many. Many refer to this as Terroir, or micro climate. It refers to the small differences in angle to the sun created by sloping land. Differences in humidity due to altitude, row direction, canopy density etc. differences in soil composition, soil structure and soil macro and micro elements. Your neighbour cannot copy all of these factors, therefore he cannot copy your wine. This has led to an industry that is amazing to be a part of. Open, helpful and fun.

Why we drink wine
I find that people are sometimes intimidated by wine talk, wine snobs and wine pushers (sommeliers and wine merchants). Forget about them. Wine is designed to be fun. We drink wine because it takes the edge off. It gets us laughing. It helps us forget. It helps us remember what’s important like friendship, good company and great food. These three elements are the foundation of a happy relationship with wine. A journey that never stops. The more you learn the more you crave to learn. In this series of articles I’d like to invite you on a journey to discover wine for yourself. Together we can debunk some wine myths, create some new ones, learn some wine facts and increase our wine vocabulary. We might visit a few wineries together or talk to someone interesting about their wine journey. Promise me though you will be true to yourself and be honest. Wine is simple. If you like it, it’s a good wine. If you don’t, it’s not a good wine. Your opinion is the only one that counts on your journey.

A word on wine
Where to start on this journey though. At the beginning of course. The term cultivar is defined in wilkipedia as such, “plants selected for desirable characters that are maintained during propagation”. In wine terms this means that for the past two to three thousand years man has been selecting wine for certain characteristics. All modern day wine cultivars descend from the wine we know today as Shiraz. This was found in the valley of Syrah in the kingdom of Persia, which is modern day Iran. We know this from genetic mapping. In those days the vine was a desert growing creeper. Today’s cultivars are human-bred grape varieties. Sometimes we refer to them as wine types. Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay are all wine cultivars. In other words they are types of wine plants that have been bred to create certain characteristics of taste. We now protect these characteristics fiercely. So – back to those ancient Shiraz grapes in the desert. It crept along the hot desert floor looking for shade. When it found shade in the form of a rock crevice or upright bush it turned its shoots skyward and climbed into the shade. A plant hormone called Auxin sitting in the tips of the shoot caused a phenominen called apical dominance. The tip of the shoot keeps growing in length until the shoot tip turns skyward. Once it turns skyward the auxin kicks in and stimulates production of grapes. If the vine had stayed on the scorching desert floor and tried to make grapes they would simply have shriveled up in the desert heat. Interesting you say, with a look on your face that says it all. Why is he telling me this? You see this phenomenin is the basis of all modern wine farming. Through hundreds of years of trial and error, and more recent research into hormones etc., man has realised that the vines produce more grapes, better grapes and more uniform grapes when the shoots point upwards as straight as possible. This has led to the modern methods of trellising grapes on wires strung between poles. The rows and rows of grapes that you see in their pristine rows would have otherwise fallen over and created an unruly clumped mass of vine crawling in every direction looking for something to help its shoots point upwards. So since then man has taken cuttings, selected material and used any means available such as trellising to change the vine into that modern cultured and preened vineyard that you see on your travels. It is a journey rich in history and full of innovation. But the leading reason is because it warms your heart and calms your soul.

SHIRAZ – The cultivar
Well we already know the origin of Shiraz so let’s go a bit deeper. Shiraz first seems to have been noticed in France around 600 B.C. Called Syrah in France, it gained notoriety in the Rhone valley around the town of Hermitage. Shiraz is one of the darkest reds. It is quite high in Tannin which accounts for its ability to age well, its big solid feel and its health benefits. As a novice wine drinker I used to associate Shiraz with toothpaste. It might have been the spicy fluoride or the feel it gave me in my mouth. But hey, don’t trust me – make your own opinion. It is a spicy wine with pepper being quite notable. It is this trait that makes it go so well with spicy foods. I like it. A lot. Some may call me a wine snob, I know my wife does! Wine snobs like to let everyone know they know a lot about wine. They sometimes talk down to and intimidate lesser folk. They talk in lofty tones about Terroir and love to reference obscure wine regions. But, if you can look past this, join me on a journey and I promise to offer you a worldly taste of wine. Write to The International and tell us what you’d like to read in Mathew’s next masterclass – lyndsay@the-intl.com.