By contributing writers Gordon and Jean Leidner
“Ripely delicious and jammy with raspberries, red cherries, and sweet-buttered-toast notes…” “…brimming with ripe, expressive flavors of peaches, tangerines, tropical fruits, and oaky-spicy notes.”
If you’re like us, you’ve read those fanciful wine descriptions and wondered how in the wine-making world do all those flavors come from a grape?! Let’s see if we can get some answers to the head-scratching question, “What gives wine its flavor?”
How People Sense Flavor
First of all, it helps to understand a little bit about the way we humans get flavor from what we eat and drink. The sensation of flavor is actually a combination of taste and smell. Our tongue is limited to only discerning salty, sweet, bitter, and sour sensations, so we rely on our sense of smell to give full expression to the way food is tasted.
Because wine has so many unique aromas, the tantalizing flavors of wine are incredibly diverse for a drink with only one ingredient: the humble grape.
How Wine Develops Flavor
Wine gets its array of flavors from three different places: the grape itself, the climate where the wine is grown, and the winemaking process.
The Grape Itself
While there are more than 5,000 different wine grape varieties in the world, only about 100 of these are commonly used in wine production. Each grape variety comes packaged with its own unique aromatic compound locked within the skin’s cells, waiting to be released during fermentation.
In fact, over 200 aromatic esters have been detected in wine. (ester: Flavor and aroma-carrying fatty acids and glycerides in plants.) When we say that a wine has the scent of a peach, it is because both the wine and the peach possess an identical chemical compound, or aromatic ester.
The Growing Climate
Some years produce a better quality wine than other years. Some wines of the same variety in the same year turn out differently depending on where they were grown. For instance, a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a cool region will often have a tartness like that of cherries or currants, while a Cab grown in a warmer, sunnier location will taste jammier, like plums or berries.
You may read descriptions such as full-bodied, ripe fruit, jammy, or smooth to describe warm climate wines. In contrast, wines from a cool climate may be described as crisp, light, apple or pear, or elegant.
The Winemaking Process
It is the fermentation process that truly gives wine its flavor. Remember a few paragraphs up when we talked about releasing the aromatic esters in the grapes? We have yeast to thank for that. (Thank-you, yeast!) Yeast is already naturally present on the grape itself, and cultured yeast is sometimes added during fermentation as well. During fermentation, a simple chemical reaction occurs which releases these compounds.
These compounds take on similar molecular arrangements to familiar scents that our nose and brain can categorize. Let’s use Chardonnay as our example. A winemaker may use different yeast strains to produce the desired flavor profile. One strain may produce a Chardonnay with more tropical fruit flavors, while another strain may make the wine more citrusy.
If the winemaker wants a Chardonnay to taste buttery, a strain of lactic bacteria will be added to the wine during a second fermentation process, called malolactic fermentation. A chemical by-product of this process is diacetyl, the component of butter that makes it smell and taste like, well, butter.
Another factor in the winemaking process that affects the flavor is how the wine is aged. In our last post, “Why is Wine Aged in Oak Barrels?,” we talked about how the oak itself imparts certain flavors to wine. When you taste vanilla in a wine, it is a by-product of phenols within the wood. The oak barrel imparts other flavors and aromas to the wine, too, that accentuate a wine’s smoky, spicy qualities.
Wine Flavors are Intricate and Complex
When you are tempted to believe that the wine enthusiasts who write those flowery reviews are merely trying to impress, you can now understand that wine truly is one of the most intricate and complex of all food tastes.
Of course, one can go over the top with their description. “Rich cocoa dusted berries, dill pickle and dried currants with a supple, fruity medium-to-full body and a juicy, lime marmalade accented finish. A deliciously ripe and mouthwatering zin for sipping or to pair with gourmet meatballs.” Yeah, right!
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Gordon and Jean Leidner have been wine enthusiasts for years. They enjoy visiting wineries, hosting wine parties, and have even dabbled in making wine from kits. Gordon has been a history buff for most of his life, and blogs at his website Great American History.