Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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The juice of the grape is just one of the naturally sweet liquids with which our ancestors learned to make alcoholic drinks. Perhaps just as ancient as grape wine is koumiss, the fermented mare’s milk of the central Asian nomads. One Greek word for wine, methu, came from the Indo-European word for fermented honey water, whose name in English is mead. The Romans fermented dates and figs. And before they tasted wine, the inhabitants of northern Europe drank apple juice fermented into cider.

But the grape turned out to be uniquely suited to the development of a diverse family of alcoholic drinks. The grapevine is a highly productive plant that can adapt to a wide range of soils and climates. Its fruits retain large amounts of an unusual acid, tartaric acid, which few microbes can metabolize, and which favors the growth of yeasts. The grapes ripen with enough sugar that the yeasts’ alcohol production can suppress the growth of nearly all other microbes. And they offer striking colors and a variety of flavors.