What the Smell? Where does wine get its amazing unique flavors?

Apple pie.  Lead pencil.  Old leather.  Star anise.  Caramel.  Lemongrass.  Sichuan pepper. 

Wines can evoke a huge array of real-world flavors.  So how do these sometimes “out there” flavors and tastes actually get into what is essentially just a bottle of crushed grapes?  Science, dear reader

If you click through the ‘Science, dear reader’ link, you’ll see that the good folks at Wine Enthusiast provide an easily readable yet concisely comprehensive list of noteworthy compounds found in wine and “flavors you may not realize come from them.”

While numerous flavors can be imparted in grapes out in the field, science says that they often get bound up to the sugar molecules and can’t really be tasted… until the grapes get into the winery and are fermented where the sugars are released, and thus, the flavors of the field.  Most winemakers (okay, we’ll say all of them) will tell you that the best wine starts in the vineyard. And that’s why winemakers are obsessed with terroir, the “sense of place” where vineyards are planted.  The soil and air lend grapes their primary characteristics, and as you probably know already, often determines what the best type of grape works with the location.  

But it goes much deeper (and richer and more savory and spicier and…) than that thanks to the way wine grapes make their journey from stem to bottle.  At the top level, it’s a three-step journey where ‘primary’ aromas are derived right from the grapes, then ‘secondary’ aromas are elicited through the fermentation process.  This is where the winemakers start to create complex layers by manipulating yeasts and bacteria (don’t worry, good ones!) to turn those juicy, fruity grapes into the rich alcohol-tinged delight that tickles our fancy.  Many of the fun, funky, and eyebrow raising aromas – the ‘tertiary’ level — are derived in the aging/oxidation process where the grapes (now wine) are allowed to sit in oak barrels to pick up notes of vanilla, caramel, and wood, for instance.  Other popular-ish tertiary profiles include truffle, nutmeg, forest floor, and grilled meat. 

HERE is a great flavor primer for dabbling-through-expert tasters who like to dig their noses into a lovely glass of golden, pink, or ruby colored wine to try to sleuth out the potential variety of flavors.  It comes from the fun experts at Wine Folly. 

If you really want to take the ‘advanced course, Wine Folly also offers an introductory piece on the secret to tasting like a master sommelier which is to be able to identify “impact compounds.”  Not for the faint of heart, there are over 100 of these compounds (pyrazines and rotundone, anyone?) that can combine to create thousands of potential smells.  But hey, you’re always supposed to at least try something new, right? 

With this in mind, the only question is: Can you actually train your palate to recognize different flavors, aromas, and compounds?  Sure!  Caution: it will take a lot of opening wine bottles! But quite simply, it’s about comparing and contrasting, using flavor wheels or other ‘cheat sheets’ to help you identify things, and really just understanding your own likes and dislikes. 

Salud and enjoy the olfactory journey! 

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

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