Decoding Wine DNA.
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
Who put cherries in my Pinot Noir? How is it possible that Cabernet can have aromas of bell pepper and chardonnay like apple? Winemakers can’t actually put juice from other fruit in the bottle unless they state it on the label (“Plum-flavored wine”). So how does that taste get in there? There is a scientific reason; first of which is the type of yeast used or naturally found in the grape. That determines many of the characters in wine, including aroma, flavor, and even the finish. Other descriptors have more to do with texture rather than taste. Tannin in wine from the skins, seeds and stems is the element that makes wine taste or feel dry. It can also be found in tea, or cinnamon. Some processes are the winemaker’s choice. Malolactic fermentation turns the tart-tasting malic acid into the softer-tasting lactic acid. Next comes the natural and sometimes mysterious “cross-over” flavors. Sauvignon Blanc has significant amounts of a compound called methoxy-pyrazine that give it that herbaceous character… so does asparagus! Chardonnay has Diacetyl… so does butter. The classic nose of Nebbiolo, believe it or not is tar and roses! Still other scents and tastes don’t come from the grape at all. The barrel used and even time in the bottle add their own marker to the mix by adding leather, coffee or, as in the case of some Bordeaux, cigar box nuances. Granted, some descriptors will make you shake your head. Wine writers tend to wax poetic using jargon like angular, brooding and austere. They might even describe flavors that have nothing to do with wine. You may ask how the taste or smell of leather is appealing to wine lovers. That’s when wine gets personal. It can trigger a memory of your baseball glove as a kid, or falling into your favorite lounge chair as an adult. Wine at its best is more than a beverage, it’s comfort-in-a-glass. How you describe a wine may just depend on how big your vocabulary is.
The quickest way to learn the main flavor components of each grape varietal is with the wine wheel. This tool of the trade, originally created by sensory chemist Ann C. Noble and reproduced here, can help identify tastes that you know but just can’t put your finger on.