Vanilla in Wine

Question from Karen: It seems like a lot of wine descriptions say “vanilla.” Why would something made of grapes taste like vanilla? 

Reply: Hi, Karenl. Thanks for writing! We usually assume that vanilla character is extracted from the barrel (the barrel would have to be relatively new). Vanillin occurs naturally in raw oak and it becomes more noticeable with toasting, up to a point (the wood staves are bent into place over an oak fire. Then they toast the barrel, a little longer, over the fire in most cases). 

There are lots of different characteristics in wine that are barrel derived and vanilla is in the top five, which is why you see it so often. Other common flavors/aromas: Coconut, caramelized character, smoke, coffee, spice (especially clove), nuttiness, dill (especially American oak), tobacco… 

We can never be 100% sure that any of these characteristics are barrel derived. For instance, spiciness may be barrel derived but some grape varieties are inherently spicy: Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer and Syrah come to mind. Hay and tobacco aromas may come from the barrel, but Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc display those characteristics whether they’re barrel aged or not.

I think that’s part of the fun. For everything we think we know there is an equal number of mysteries – especially when it comes to fermentation aromas. 

Hope that helps. Cheers!

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