By Jennifer Tylbon
Tuscany, Champagne, Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Cadiz … these places evoke images of rolling vineyards, broad-leafed grapevines draped across wires, and rich, ruby-colored wines swirling in crystal goblets. People think of Oklahoma a little less often when planning out their world wine-tasting tour. But with more than 45 independent wineries actively operating within the state borders, the wineries of Oklahoma are steadily working toward changing that perception.
Geographically speaking, the northern border of Oklahoma runs along the 37th parallel. This same line of latitude bisects the Italian island if Sicily and runs just south of California’s Napa Valley. This means we share quite a bit of climatic similarities with some of the world’s most famous wine-producing regions.
Our warmer temperatures, moderate humidity, excellent soil conditions and perfect balance of sun exposure mean our great state can grow grapes with the best of them. But growing the grapes is only half the battle of creating Oklahoma wines. There is a veritable art and science behind what makes a wine great.
Making wine is by no means a simple process, but it all starts the same way – with the grapes. The type of grape used makes most of the difference in the ultimate outcome of the wine. Riesling wines are made with a type of green grape called Riesling, which can be used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet or sparkling white wines. How the winemaker handles the grape and the fermentation process will determine the type of wine created.
Muscat grapes are used to make a variety of types of wine often named Moscato. Interestingly, members of the Muscat grape family are also used as table grapes and to make raisins. Moscato wines can be red, white or pink, sparkling or still, depending not only on the variant of Muscat grape, but also on the extraction of the juice and fermentation thereof.
It should be noted that most grapes produce a clear or slightly honey-toned juice not unlike the color of light white wines. Rose and red wines are born from allowing those clear juices to ferment in the same vat (or tank in the case of some modern wineries, including many of Oklahoma’s own) as the skins. Over a period of days, the skins lend a good bit of flavor, texture and color to the juice as the alcohol is produced. The task of the winemaker is knowing just how long the juice needs to ferment with and without the skins to achieve the desired effect.
Exceptions to producing clear juice do exist, namely the Concord grape, made famous for its use in bottled grape juice. Grapes are given their color by anthocyanin pigments. For most types of grapes, this compound is confined to the skin of the grape. For other grapes such as the Alicante Bouschet, Dunkelfelder and Norton varieties, the anthocyanin pigments accumulate with the berry or pulp itself. This is called teinurier in the world of wine. Winemakers will use small amounts of these juices to affect both color and texture of the wine they are crafting with other grape varieties. Alone, these particular grapes do not typically make the best wines, likely due to much higher tannin counts caused by the drastic increase in the anthocyanin compounds. Tannins are phenol compounds, closely related to alcohol, and are responsible for the bitter, mouth-drying property of wine. The higher the tannin count, the drier the wine is considered.
The process can be compared to making a glass of tea. Take a glass of hot water and use a tea bag for just a minute, and you have a very weak-tasting tea without much color. Let the tea bag steep for three minutes, and color darkens while the flavor gets stronger and more complex. After six minutes, the tea will turn a very dark, sometimes cloudy color, and the tea has an incredibly strong flavor and aroma, and is often more bitter. Just like tea can be made undesirable by allowing the leaves to steep too long, so, too, can wine be rendered “poor” by allowing too much time to ferment with the skins.
Just as steeping is not the only factor in making a good tea, there are countless more factors in producing a good wine. Oklahoma is quite fortunate to enjoy so many good folks who know a thing or 20 about what it takes to bring a delicious bottle of artfully crafted wine to the table.
The process of winemaking is not only an ancient art, it is one with so many techniques and variants that the science of it will likely be endlessly analyzed. From aging in a barrel to adding sugar to blending different juices before bottling, the debates are endless as to the best way to make wine. While there are certainly wrong ways to make wine, it is difficult to establish a single “right” way. Each batch can require different attentions, along with varying demands of climate, tools, time and grape.
A whole branch of science has developed, referred to as enology (or oenology), from the Greek –oinos, “wine” and –logia, “study of.” Enology is the science and study of all aspects of wine and winemaking. Subsequently, the study of vine growing and grape-harvesting is referred to as viticulture. A growing number of universities and schools are offering programs in viticulture and enology, including Virginia Tech, Washington State and Cornell.
Even after all that trouble to create the wine, there comes a whole technique to drinking it. Wine-lovers and aficionados of the craft have a language of their own, and it can be rather intimidating. Words like body, aeration, balance, finish and vintage are common, and might deserve a bit of definition.
Body: Refers to the tactile sensation of enjoying the wine. A wine can be light, medium, or full-bodied.
Aeration: Closely associated with the term “breathing,” aeration is the exposure of the wine to air. This tends to affect the flavor of the wine, often softening it. This is considered a key step in truly tasting a wine, and is often why you see wine tasters swirling the liquid in the glass.
Balance: A well-balanced wine refers to one that offers a harmonious blend of the various elements that make up the wine: acids, sugars, tannins and alcohol. The type of wine, variant of grape used and various techniques in the fermentation process will affect the balance.
Finish: This is another word for aftertaste; however, for wine drinkers, it goes beyond that. The impression of textures and flavors left behind after the wine is swallowed is all a part of the experience that is created by that particular wine.
Vintage: This can refer either to the year in which the wine was bottled or the yield of wine from a vineyard during a single season. Wines must undergo a process of fermentation to go from grape juice to wine, and the vintage indicates just how long the wine has been aged. Wines can peak, meaning they will have the best texture, balance, finish, flavor and all those things that make a wine truly fine at a particular point in time after being bottled. However, the majority of wines produced today are designed to drink young, or shortly after bottling.
No matter your education or understanding of making and enjoying wine, Oklahoma is turning out to be quite the proving ground for burgeoning sommeliers. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department features an introduction to Oklahoma’s growing wine culture with their Wines and Vines Tour. Five of Central Oklahoma’s top wineries are included on the day trip, including the majestic Tres Suenos Vineyard in Luther and Drumright’s Tidal School Winery, both boasting award-winning wines and amazing facilities in which to enjoy a glass or two. Barring that, a visit to any of the state’s wineries will no doubt be an eye-opening and palette-expanding experience, not to mention an ideal day trip of the grown-up variety.