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Question from Chris: I can’t usually pick out flavors like strawberry or chocolate in wine but the other day I had a glass of Pinot Noir that smelled just like cloves. It was so strong I couldn’t notice anything else about the wine. Is that common? Maybe I could pick it out because I like to bake?
Reply: Hi, Chris. Thanks for writing! Clove is, indeed, a very common descriptor for oak-aged wine. Evidently, there’s a compound known as eugenol found in oak and it’s the main aroma compound found in cloves. Don’t you just love that? Stuff like this a one of the many reasons why wine is endlessly interesting!
Very occasionally I get a question about whether things like strawberry or licorice are actually added to the wine. If they were, the bottle would have to say “strawberry flavored wine.” It couldn’t simply say “wine” – it would have to be qualified in that way. So, all those descriptors you see in the wine ratings are derived from the grapes, the barrels, fermentation, environment (like exposure to air) and/or time. Except, of course, for the obscure descriptors used by wine writers who simply want to impress – oh, brother… Continue reading
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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