Have you ever wondered why wine smells (and tastes) like virtually every fruit in the book, except for grapes? Or how a wine can smell like vanilla, taste like cherries and finish like satin?
Welcome to the world of stereoisomers. Don't worry if high school chemistry wasn't your thing, stereoisomers are merely different configurations of the same chemical compound. Stay with me. For example, two common scents in California Chardonnay are apple and butter, you'll hear plenty about "big, buttery Chardonnay." So has the winemaker added butter or a dash of apple juice to the fermentation mix? No. Aside from the true fruit wines, like strawberry wine or cherry wine, that are floating around the market, conventional wine is made solely from grapes. That's it.
Wine Flavor Factors
So where are these other scents, flavors and sometimes off the wall descriptions coming from? The easy answer is fermentation. In the fermentation process, the yeast eats the grape sugar and converts it to alcohol and in the process literally thousands of various, complex chemical compounds are also formed. It is these ubiquitous compounds that take on similar molecular arrangements to familiar scents that our nose and brain can categorize - i.e. apple, butter, cherry and the like.
Wine Flavor: Apple
For Chards that have gone through malolactic fermentation, the process basically takes the tart malic acid (think green apple) compounds that formed during fermentation and softens them to a lactic acid (think milk) which can give the wine a creamy mouthfeel, yet still retains the apple-like scents.
Wine Flavor: Butter
Now the butter and Chardonnay connection come from a compound called diacetyl, which is a standard byproduct of the fermentation process. This same compound can be found in your spice cabinet. Just open a bottle of artificial butter and take a whiff - there you'll find your own version of diacetyl and an unforgettably strong butter aroma. If you have never had a chance to identify "buttery notes" on a Chardonnay, pour an oaked Chardonnay in a glass, give it a swirl and stick your nose in the glass. Try to bypass the other aromas screaming for your attention and focus, focus, focus in on the diacetyl. If you don't get it at first pass, then take another whiff of your fake butter and then swirl and sniff the Chardonnay again. Interestingly enough, you'll also often taste this smell on the finish of the Chardonnay when you swallow. Give it a go - people are amazed how they are able to single out this famous component of many Chardonnays with this simple exercise.
Wine Flavor: Berry
Just like the fermentation process kicked out chemical compounds that were stereoisomers to apple, the same happens for an assortment of red or dark berries and red wine fermentation. If the grapes are grown in cooler climates, the berry scents and subsequent flavors will be tighter like that of cranberry or currant. Warmer grapes showcase richer red fruit, think strawberry and big, juicy blackberries.
Wine Flavor: Vanilla
Vanilla is a byproduct of oak aging. The long-standing relationship between oak and wine is worth investigating, especially since oak barrels have been used in wine fermentation and barrel aging for centuries. Oak is utilized somewhat like a “seasoning” to add flavor and palate appeal to a wine. Oak provides flavor and aromatic support to the wine while adding richer, fuller impressions and complexity. On the nose, oak’s primary influences tend to accentuate aromas that center around the spice rack, with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and “allspice” being common aromas derived from a wine’s time spent in oak. On the palate, oak’s influence turns toward the rich flavors of caramel, coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, smoke, tea, mocha, toffee and butter. If you are interested in doing a separate wine tasting to discern the presence or absence of oak for yourself, then check out the Oak and Wine Component Tasting.
Wine Flavors: A function of Scent?
Remember from elementary school that your taste buds can truly only taste for sensations: sweet, bitter, sour and salt. Yet your nose can discern thousands of individual scents, which in turn allows you to taste hundreds of various food flavor nuances. That is why it is so important to really swirl your wine in the glass, take a deep whiff in and then take a sip, hold it in your mouth for a few seconds so that the liquid can hit all of your various tastebuds for a total picture of what the wine has to offer.
Common White Wine Flavors
When you think of white wines, think of white or lighter-fleshed fruit. The most common scents and flavors that you can expect in white wine varietals include apple, pear, citrus, tropical, peach, apricot, melon, kiwi, banana, mango, pineapple, warm florals, butter and often you'll notice more acidity on the palate with white wines.
Common Red Wine Flavors
Just as you considered lighter fruits with white wines, you'll want to shift to darker fruit for red wine profiles. The most common scents and flavors for red wine varietals include cherry, cranberry, raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, plum, raisin, fig and various floral tones, spices and you'll often notice more tannins in the red wine category.
How Climate Affects Wine Flavors
It's no secret that climate affects every vintage, every year, but it also plays a critical role in the development of the individual grape clusters and their innate flavor profiles. For example, a wine's style will be completely different depending on where it was grown. Take a Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, one grown in a cooler region and one grown in a warm sunny, locale. What happens to the grapes? In the cooler areas the Cab grapes will often display tart, tight flavors like that of red cherries or currants; however, grapes grown in warmer climates present juicier fruit, like that of plums, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries as a direct result of ripeness levels based on sun exposure.
Once you have a handle on the background of wine flavors, you're ready to start tasting wine like the pros.