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10 Little-known Wine Facts

Probably the oldest alcoholic drink, wine is enjoyed in many forms around the world.
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Wine is one of those things that people like to be able to talk about. And while some people can carry on a good wine-related conversation, most people wing it.

It's a testament to this, our most ancient alcoholic drink, that it still holds such esteem in our society. In its 10,000-year history, the people who really needed to know a lot about wine were the people who improved the inevitable process of fermentation and made a good vat of juice into great casks of the beloved beverage.

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In that process, the wine can come out so many different ways that those who drink it have sought to know a little about that magic. Here are some of the facts behind the ancient practice -- and some long-held fictions, too.

If you squeeze some grape juice into a jar and keep it a little warm, it'll turn into wine all by itself. The yeast that lives on grape skins is so irrepressible that it produces wine automatically. It may not be good wine, but it's wine nonetheless.

Because this process is so automatic, historians, botanists and other wine-minded experts agree that wine was the first alcoholic beverage discovered by prehistoric groups. They believe that the first wine was discovered, tasted, and then deliberately produced about 10,000 years ago.

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Swap that wine glass for a stein -- grapes have also been used to make beer.
Swap that wine glass for a stein -- grapes have also been used to make beer.
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If wine wasn't the first alcoholic beverage, then the yeast from grapes was used to make the first beer.

In history as in the barroom, wine has its advocates and beer has its advocates, and some historians believe people made beer before they made wine.

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But the skin of the grape proved to be essential even in this process. The yeast from the foam of the skin of fermenting grapes is a catalyst to fermenting honey, fruits and barley, which is the start of a good beer.

The first clear health benefit of wine was that it saved growing populations from the diseases caused by bad water.

Any time large groups of people settle in an area, the water, left untreated, goes bad. People start dying of dysentery, cholera and botulism as more people move in and contaminate the water supply.

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Wine doesn't kill you. In fact, the high alcohol content from natural fermentation kills bacteria very efficiently. You can get 15 percent alcohol by volume in your wine without really working at it, and that's a life-saving formula.

The Romans love their wine, but did they really try to use it to bring down an empire?
The Romans love their wine, but did they really try to use it to bring down an empire?
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We all know how much the Romans loved their wine; watch any gladiator movie, and you see the drink flowing.

Over the years, historians have postulated that the Romans' practice of boiling ingredients for wine in lead pots contributed to lead poisoning in the ruling class. The Romans would boil unfermented grape juice to concentrate the sugar, then they would add the sweet syrup to lower quality wines and sell them to the rich.

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Lead poisoning causes brain damage and infertility, among other things.

Certainly not every historian buys into this theory, but wine-induced brain damage in the ruling class certainly couldn't have helped the empire in times of crisis.

In California, wine country tours are second only to Disneyland in popularity with tourists.

According to the California Wine Institute, more than 14 million people visit the California wine regions each year. Of course, wine is grown in 48 out of 58 counties in the state.

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Granted, not all those visitors are expert wine tasters, but the popularity of the tours has spurred wineries to offer not only tasting rooms and restaurants, but also music, art shows and theater. In tourism, as in many things, the wine serves as the catalyst.

The use of sacramental wine may be one reason that wine consumption is so high per capita in Vatican City.
The use of sacramental wine may be one reason that wine consumption is so high per capita in Vatican City.
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According to Trade Data and Analysis, the 932 residents of Vatican City consumed more than 70 liters (18.5 gallons) of wine per capita in 2009, followed by Luxembourg, whose 500,000 residents drank 54 liters (14.3 gallons) per capita.

Granted, the low populations of these countries push those ratios higher. And it's fair to say that no children live within the borders of Vatican City. But there are smaller countries such as Andorra and the Cayman Islands who come in lower on that list.

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So what's the deal? Remember that the sacramental wine is a cornerstone of ceremony in the Catholic Church. With that in mind, if Vatican City ever dropped out of first place, that would be the bigger story.

The cork is actually for examining.

If you have the good fortune to sit down in a restaurant with a wine steward, you're not going to make a great impression by sniffing the cork when he hands it to you.

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In truth, he's presenting you the cork to examine. Check to see if it's all in one piece; a fragmented or moldy cork might mean a lower quality wine.

With the best wines, the cork will display the date and other information, as well.

Women, beware: That glass of wine is likely to affect you more than it does him.
Women, beware: That glass of wine is likely to affect you more than it does him.
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This is because women have less of an enzyme in the stomach to metabolize wine. Men have more of an enzyme that degrades alcohol, and, in general, men can safely consume twice the amount of alcohol as women because of this and other metabolic differences.

Of course, women enjoy more protection from alcohol-related liver disease if they simply eat while they drink.

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So if you're going to open a bottle, maybe it's wise to keep some snacks on hand, too.

The English passion for botany in Victorian times led to the importation of American grapes to botanical gardens. Those cuttings contained an insect that attacks the roots of grape vines. The bug spread throughout Europe and destroyed nearly all native vineyards.

Soon after the blight started, a botanist from Texas suggested grafting roots of American vines that are resistant to the pests onto the European vines. By some accounts, every plant in Europe was grafted. Of course, those vines also imported non-native mold and fungus to the European plants, and some native species went extinct.

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Many wine experts continue to mourn the loss of the fully native European grapes.

Hopefully, these gorgeous Napa Valley grapes will survive the dangers of global warming.
Hopefully, these gorgeous Napa Valley grapes will survive the dangers of global warming.
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Scientists issued a dire report in 2006 that said rising temperatures could render Napa Valley in California unsuitable for growing several types of premium grapes [source: Berg].

A more recent study, released in July 2011 by scientists at Stanford University, suggested that farmers will still be able to grow the grapes, but not in California. The study, which assumes an increase in temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-16.7 degrees Celsius) in the next 30 years, suggests that the growing of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon grapes could shift to the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Walla Walla Valley in Washington [source: Berg].

The growers need a temperature of about 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) for the most delicate grapes. In this latest study, they found that we won't lose the wines, but that they may no longer be the crown jewels in the offerings of California growers.

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Sources

  • Berg, Emmett. "Global warming no friend of California wines: study." Reuters. July 1, 2011. (July 5, 2011) http://news.yahoo.com/global-warming-no-friend-california-wines-study-012307380.html
  • Estreicher, Stefan K. "Wine: From Neolithic Times to the 21st Century." Algora Publishing. 2006.
  • Grout, James. "Lead Poisoning and Rome." Encyclopaedia Romana: Essays on the History and Culture of Rome. 1997-2011. (July 5, 2011) http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/leadpoisoning.html
  • LaMar, Jim. "Wine History." Professional Friends of Wine. Dec. 17, 2010. (July 5, 2011) http://www.winepros.org/wine101/history.htm
  • Pellechia, Thomas. "Wine: The 8,000-Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade." Running Press. 2006.
  • Stockley, Creina. "Women's vulnerability to alcohol." Alcohol in Moderation. Nov. 18, 2008. (July 5, 2011) http://www.aim-digest.com/gateway/pages/women/articles/vunerability.htm
  • The Wine Institute. (July 6, 2011) http://www.wineinstitute.org

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