Wine Flavors and Flavor Influences

Where do the unexpected flavors in wine come from?

Cropped Image Of Hand Pouring Wine In Glass
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If you have noticed that wine smells and tastes like almost every fruit except grapes, you're not alone. How can a wine smell like vanilla, taste like cherries and finish like satin? It seems counterintuitive and that's what makes the flavor of wines so fascinating.

From fermentation to aging, there are many factors in the production of wine that influence the flavors and aromas. Once you have a basic understanding of how to recognize these flavors and what affects them, you're ready to start tasting wine like the pros.

Wine Flavor Factors

The final flavor of a wine is influenced by many factors, including stereoisomers. Don't worry if high school chemistry wasn't your thing, stereoisomers are merely different configurations of the same chemical compound. For example, two common scents in California Chardonnay are apple and butter, which is why you'll hear plenty about "a big, buttery Chardonnay." 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, conventional wine is made solely from grapes.

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. At the same time, thousands of various, complex chemical compounds are also formed. It is these ubiquitous compounds that take on similar molecular arrangements to familiar scents that the human nose and brain can categorize, such as apple, butter, cherry, and the like.

Apple Flavor in Wine

Many Chardonnays go through malolactic fermentation. The process basically takes the tart malic acid (think green apple) compounds that formed during fermentation and softens them to lactic acid (think milk). This can give the wine a creamy mouthfeel while retaining the apple-like scents.

Butter Flavor in Wine

The butter and Chardonnay connection comes 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 and you'll find your own version of diacetyl and an unforgettably strong butter aroma.

To identify "buttery notes" in 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 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 at how they are able to single out this famous component of many Chardonnays with this simple exercise.

Berry Flavor in Wine

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 during the fermentation of red wine. If the grapes are grown in cooler climates, the berry scents and subsequent flavors will be tighter like that of cranberry or currant. Warm climate grapes showcase richer red fruit, such as strawberry and big, juicy blackberries.

Vanilla Flavor in Wine

Vanilla is a byproduct of oak aging. There is a long-standing relationship between oak and wine as oak barrels have been used in wine fermentation and aging for centuries. The wood acts as a seasoning to add flavor and palate appeal to a wine. It also provides aromatic support while adding richer, fuller impressions and complexity.

On the nose, oak’s primary influences tend to accentuate aromas that center around the spice rack. Allspice, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla are the most common aromas derived from a wine’s time spent in oak. On the palate, oak’s influence turns toward the rich flavors of butter, caramel, cinnamon, clove, coconut, mocha, smoke, tea, toffee, and vanilla.

A tasting exercise can help you identify these oak components in wine: Select a bottle of oaked wine and another that is unoaked (or "naked") of the same style (Chardonnay is a good choice). Pour a small glass of each, swirl the wine and take in the aromas followed by small sips. Wash your palate with water between each sip. By the time both glasses are empty, you should be able to recognize the difference that oak makes.

Climate Effects

It's no secret that climate affects every vintage of wine, every year. It also plays a critical role in the development of the individual grape clusters and their innate flavor profiles.

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. 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.

Flavor Is a Function of Scent

With all this talk about flavors, it's important to remember that your taste buds can only truly taste four sensations: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. Yet your nose can discern thousands of individual scents and that allows you to taste hundreds of various food flavor nuances. This is why it is so important to really swirl your wine in the glass, take a deep whiff, 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, apricot, banana, citrus, kiwi, mango, melon, peach, pear, pineapple, and tropical and warm florals, as well as butter. Additionally, you'll often notice more acidity on the palate with white wines.

Common Red Wine Flavors

You'll want to shift to darker fruit for red wine profiles. The most common scents and flavors for red wine varietals include blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, fig, plum, raisin, raspberry, strawberry, and various floral tones and spices. In reds, you'll often notice more tannins, which are responsible for the dry mouthfeel.