Fermented grape juice

Rachel Hendry finds wonder in the esoteric processes of fermentation

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A phrase often used to simplify a world and to add reassurance to an encounter, it should perhaps be put to work to highlight a complexity not always considered.

Wine is most often discussed in terms of fruit. The grape variety is one of the first things enquired about when ordering a glass or a bottle. This would be all good and understandable except for one important point – when wine is drunk it is not fruit that is being consumed, it is a culture.

For wine is just fermented grape juice in the same way that cheese is just fermented milk, and bread, just fermented wheat. That word, fermentation, does a lot of the leg work in conveying the magical transformations that take place, transformations that have inspired populations. There is, quite simply, no “just” about it.

Take bread for example. Probably the simplest homebrew recipe I could recommend.

Have you ever made bread? Or perhaps witnessed bread being made? That elasticated dough, kneaded within an inch of its life, gets taken to a blisteringly hot environment so the yeast can get to work. In a process not dissimilar to the champagne method, sugar is consumed, carbon dioxide is produced et voila, what causes wine to sparkle works to make bread rise too. 

The definition of transfiguration is a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. Often used to describe embodiments of Jesus Christ, or magical alchemy, I can think of no better word to describe the changes that take place under fermentation. If bread isn’t spiritual then, to be honest with you, I don’t know what is. Regarding fermentation, I don’t think I’m the only one who shares this sentiment.

An AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) is a set of rules and regulations drawn up to protect the quality and integrity of a product from a particular place. There are only two types of AOC in France: one is for wine, the other for cheese. Not milk, not grapes, but the cultures born from them. It is the process of fermentation that has inspired protection.

Place is integral to establishing AOCs and what starts with soil for wine begins with grass for cheese.

Terroir is a difficult concept to get your head around. It’s all part of a wine’s mystery, its so-called romance. The best way I’ve managed to understand a wine’s terroir is by viewing it as its personality. Just like people, a wine is formed by its surroundings. Every natural encounter a grape experiences leads to its final taste, and this is no different for sheep or cows or goats. In the battle of nature versus nurture, terroir can be attributed to nature with its maker its nurturer. 

AOCs are put in place in order to ensure quality and serve localised tradition, but they also work to protect reputation as well. Italian wine professionals went as far as renaming the Prosecco to Glera so it could become an AOC after attempts by many, including Paris Hilton herself, to profit off its popularity. Manchego has fought similar battles in Mexico, a country with a history of making many different versions of European cheeses. As of January this year all Mexican versions of Manchego have to be sold declaring it a mere imitation of its Spanish counterpart. I can think of no other way of eating and drinking that is as carefully guarded and regimented.

There is, of course, much more to fermentation than bread, wine and cheese.

Due, in part, to their recent adoption by Western White Wellness circles, the growing awareness and popularity of fermented foods from other countries, or the cultures of other cultures as I like to put it, has grown exponentially over the last few years.

There is, however, something quite jarring to me about the language used to discuss those microbes and bacterias we consume, especially when you view them alongside the ways wine can be described.

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Probiotic yoghurt has been replaced by the healing properties of Kefir. Sauerkraut has been embraced alongside Kimchi in a new wave of superfoods. Kombucha sales are growing at a rate impossible to keep up with despite their tendencies to become accidentally alcoholic in the process. The list goes on.

Following suit, the Clean Wine movement, spearheaded by Cameron Diaz’s new wine brand Avaline, has a similar dialect. Clean wine gives you a “better” glass, complete with full “nutritional transparency”. Talks of cleanliness, of pasteurisation, of sterile filtration, of a moral code shadows the discussions of our food. The problem being, that no wine, or food, can really be clean, that’s the whole point of it.

In his fermentation guide for award-winning food and drink newsletter Vittles last year, Thom Eagle described fermentation as “essentially a kind of controlled decay, and decay is inevitable”. 

Our fermentations can be classed as clean and as friendly and as healthy as they want, but that won’t remove the fact that they are living, breathing beings that someone has preserved to ensure they can live and breathe for as long as possible. If anything, it makes it even worse when they evolve beyond our control. 

It is understandable, perhaps, that after months of being told that washing our hands would be the difference between life and death, the need is felt to class some bacterias as better than others, to distinguish what is safe in a world consumed by fear. Controlling decay is one thing, but as the last year has shown, there is only so much control we have over the course it takes. 

Take wine faults, for example. When you start to view wine as a skilled product of fermentation, then the exploitation of faults to contribute to flavour becomes part of the skillset of the maker. The same is true of the mould management of a cheese maker, the supervision required of specifically-rotting vegetables, the care-taking of a sourdough culture. So little is known about the food we eat, so separated and disjointed are our supply chains, that it is impossible to binarise morality on ourselves, let alone the foods that keep us going. 

Fermentation is a living, breathing vehicle for change, and it should be embraced as such. Whilst it may be a controlled decay, it is still decay -- and aren’t we all capable of imperfections on our long journey to death? Isn’t that what being alive is all about? Who is anyone to define what is the right and wrong way of decaying? To label something as messy and wonderful as existing as either good or bad? What does that say about our attitudes to each other?

Wine is never just fermentation. It is an attempt to preserve joy, an example of how life can be made from life. It is bread and it is cheese and it is kefir and miso, too. Wine is a reminder that a grape’s life does not stop once they have been plucked from their vines, so that whenever we feel ourselves becoming stale and lacking in vitality, there is always an option to ferment and reinvent, to loosen our control on our own route to decay. 


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