A few years ago, I studied for my formal wine educator certification. It was an intense course, covering the history, geography, theory and practice of wine making and tasting. The class spent much time tasting wines – thirty or forty different wines (and a few spirits too) every day. Even with tasting size samples, that is a lot a wine to go through. On the course, I learned to spit politely rather than swallow. I also made sure that I did not drive to classes – I have no desire to attract unwanted attention from the law!
You might think that this would be a great way to build up course credits, tasting wine after wine. But it’s harder work than you might imagine. The underlying objective of all the sampling was not just glugging down wine. We analyzed what wines taste like. We learned to categorize what we discovered for each of 18 items.
One of the 18 different items about each wine was the “flavor” of the wine – and there are more than twenty standardized categories of flavors, each with its range of options. It’s not enough to simply say “this flavor of the wine is fruity” – is it like a grapefruit, or a red cherry, or a fig or a banana? And the list of flavors extends widely, including unlikely oddities like tar, tobacco and steel.
But why does a wine taste of such things that certainly are not included in its makeup? There is a science behind it!
Open a bottle of wine and many different aroma compounds called stereoisomers are released. These compounds reach the smell receptors in your nose. The smell receptors, each with its own sensitivity, send signals to your brain to identify and match that particular compound with something remembered. However, some aroma compounds can be very similar and share comparable chemical structure, such as honey and apricot, or more surprisingly spearmint and caraway seeds, or cinnamon and green bell pepper.
Wines contain many naturally created stereoisomers. Your brain tries to pick out the characteristics of several different flavors at once. No surprise that flavors considered as total opposites can become confused as the brain takes a shortcut trying to second-guess the flavor.
Food technologists mix natural and synthetic flavor compounds trying to create new flavorsome products. Wine makers must rely on the natural juice of their grapes and the fermentation process to make stereoisomers which generate the aroma and taste of the wine. Many of a wine’s aroma compounds match things we may smell or taste elsewhere. Viognier wine may offer a touch of peach and almond, and Cabernet Sauvignon (like that produced at Cavender Creek) often includes a flavor compared to black currents and plums.
There is a grape-like flavor sometimes detected in wine, especially muscadine wine. But do you really want a wine that just tastes of grape juice?