It takes the best part of a decade for a vine to produce grapes that can be used for making wine. It often takes far more than this for a talented oenologist to reach his or her peak after many patient years of experience, tasting and experimentation. A great wine will equally refuse to be hurried: the vines will require as much attention as a growing child to bring the grapes to exactly the right degree of maturation for picking, before the wine is aged in casks and later in bottles, until it is able to reveal its full potential and complexity.
Great wines are often produced by families who have owned and managed their wine estates for many years, gradually transmitting their knowledge as craftsmen from generation to generation. Indeed, the family is an ideal unit for the perpetuation of this experienced-based, almost confidential form of production. Look at the Rothschilds in Bordeaux, or the Symingtons in the Douro!
Until the grapes are picked, much of the process of making wine defies man`s control. He must enter into a partnership with nature in which he will not always come out on top. Nature has a tendency to keep its cards to itself and to spring surprises on the winemaker, some of which, such as hail, can have devastating effects.
Climatic conditions and geology will further contribute to shaping the wine, and these are of course almost completely beyond man`s control. Over time, however, he can learn how to make the most of a specific terroir to produce a wine of exceptional interest.
Now of course, as we walk past the wine shelves in our local supermarket, we are not consciously thinking of all this when we pop a couple of bottles of Douro DOC into our caddy. I should point out though that while we pick up a pack of beer for those moments when we will need quick refreshment, we are buying wine for an entirely different purpose.
In fact, we may have drained the last drop from that bottle of beer in less time than it would take us to even contemplate the second sip from our glass of wine. When we drink it in relative moderation, wine becomes a treasured companion which can bring out the best in ourselves. Just as we may enrich our lives by listening to a favourite piece of music or reading the work of an author we particularly admire, so wine has a ritualistic and soothing role in our lives. We would rarely think of spending an evening with someone we cherish, without opening a bottle of wine which we know will contribute to the magic and intimacy of the occasion.
In our society of immediately available news flow, social media, shopping malls and pornography, wine is a counter-trend product. As we gaze over the rim of our glass into the eyes of our companion, we are holding in our hand something very rich and precious: a cultural product that is the result of a slow, almost evolutionary process.
I sometimes think that those tasting notes you find on the label which list, for instance, `hints of red berries and chocolate`, could also refer to wind and rain, the scent of almond blossom, the sound of grape pickers singing, the sight of a boat laden with barrels racing down river to a distant port, the voices of merchants negotiating … for all these things have also gone into the bottle which we are now slowly tasting.