Friday, March 20, 2009

Wine flavors--where do they come from?

"Strawberries, cherries, and an angel's kiss in spring/ My summer wine is really made from all these things."--"Summer Wine," by Lee Hazlewood

Gentle readers, have you ever read a description of a wine and wondered at what stage in the winemaking the blackberries, or lemon rinds, or chocolate are added? Or whether the winemakers don't bother with such messy additions and just go for the vats of "natural" flavorings from New Jersey chemical suppliers?

Well, many people have. A few years ago we were asked the blackberry question by a visitor to the winery we then worked for. And just today we were asked a similar question, more focused on the vats from New Jersey. Both times it took us several moments to grasp the question, because the reality is so very different such scenarios do not readily occur to us.

But they should. Our mission is to help people enjoy wine as much as we can. If anyone is reluctant to take a sip based on what they think might have been added to their wine, then we have a job to do.

What follows is a version of the reply we sent to today's inquirer.

We assure you that no wines you are drinking have any artificial or "natural" flavors added. There is little natural about natural flavorings (see, for instance, Michael Pollan's work), but don't worry--they aren't added to your wine. (There are some exceptions we will mention below.)

The hints of chocolate, boysenberry, citrus, etc., are just that. The grapes contain flavors that are reminiscent of some of these things (and not just reminiscent; they are the same compounds that make a cherry smell like a cherry, for instance). The oak barrels some wines are aged in impart more flavors (that are naturally present in the wood or are created by the "toasting" of the oak wood over fire). Perhaps most importantly, the yeast that ferment the wine, whether added by the winemaker or "naturally" present on the grapes (more likely simply resident in the winery), add still more flavors by producing esters that can smell of apples, bananas, and other fruit.

It gets even more complicated when these flavors are found together, as they always are in wine. For instance, there is no compound on earth that smells like strawberries. Rather, there is a combination of chemicals (mostly esters) naturally present in strawberries that together and in the right proportions impart that distinctive smell. (Vanilla, in contrast, owes to a single, rather simple compound.) Some wines nevertheless smell of strawberries, which means that they too have the same mix of aroma compounds in the same proportions, which is pretty amazing.

Some companies sell kits of essences to wineries, but not to add to the wine. Rather, the idea is to train the staff to identify components in wine. Spiking a wine glass with a chocolate aroma, for instance, helps tasters recognize the smell of chocolate that is possibly in the wine anyway.

If you are curious about that, there is no reason to buy a kit. Just buy some inexpensive wine (we recommend the 5-L Peter Vella, which should be well less than $10), and fill several glasses with about 2 ounces. Then drop in whatever you are curious about. For instance, if you use a white wine you might add a wedge of orange to one glass, one of lemon to another, etc. And if you have access to flowers those would be great, too. Jams are also good. For red wine you might try chocolate (a small chunk of a chocolate bar), boysenberries or boysenberry jam, cherries, even savory elements like coffee, rosemary, or dill. Ideally you would cover each glass and let the mixture sit for a few hours before sniffing each, but you can do it right away. It helps to have one unadulterated glass you can compare to.

Here are some exceptions.

In premium wine, there have been a few scandals. The most recent that we are aware of occurred in South Africa, where some wineries were apparently spiking their sauvignon blancs with the compound that imparts the aroma so charmingly described as cat urine. Many people do find that desirable in Sauvignon Blanc, and it does occur in SB naturally. Really. To the extent that the guilty were caught, the wines were recalled and destroyed.

In sub-premium wine, there was a mini-scandal a few years ago that requires some legalese to explain properly. Ask for details if you want them, but the point is that "natural" and possibly artificial flavors (we don't recall) were added to boxed wines.

And there are wines you'll find on the shelf today, especially if you go looking for the Peter Vella, that state that they contain natural flavorings. Make sure you avoid those if you try the experiments above.

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