What’s in Your Wine?

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It might seem like a silly question as you’re about to take a savoring sip. Isn’t it just fermented grape juice?

There are many ingredients in the glass of wine you’re holding in addition to the natural evolution of fermenting grapes. If that’s all there were, what would all the fuss be about? The art of making wine begins in the vineyard and ends in the glass, with a curvaceous path in between.

Have you wondered why you detect a pineapple accent while your friend thinks the wine tastes like Apple Jacks®? An action-packed drama is taking place in that wineglass and you’re both enjoying different subplots that are unique and distinct. Why? What we taste in our glass is largely based on what we’ve tasted in our daily lives. If you’ve never had Apple Jack cereal, it’s a challenge to identify the flavor. The same’s true for milk chocolate versus dark chocolate. If the taster never eats dark chocolate, the nuances of deep rich cacao are overlooked and may present as burned brownie. It’s a matter of our mind’s encyclopedia of tastes, smells, textures, colors and flavors. We can only sense what we know and have experienced.

Some of what you’re tasting begins in the grapevine’s environment. Did the vineyard see heavy or light rainfall? Was the seasonal fog cooler and denser or did the unseasonable winds blow through, drying the vines earlier than anticipated? The vineyard contains natural aromatics from the surrounding area, including botanicals, oils and environmental influences. Wet soil, local trees and vegetation contribute notes of eucalyptus, pine, lavender, roses and peppers that are referred to as “vegetative.”

After the grapes are harvested, they visit the winemaker’s production facility, where there’s a lot of testing and blending to support the winemaker’s vision of how that particular wine should present itself. Although the process begins with the juice of the wine grapes containing organic yeasts and bacteria, wine production includes the addition of ingredients that create the nuances we appreciate, such as allspice, tobacco, melted butter, toasted nuts and even pencil shavings.

There’s a difference between a nuance of smoked bacon and the aroma of residual fire smoke. Regional fires produce a variety of smoke from burning buildings, masonry, cars, vegetation and vineyards. With the 2017 vintage, we must wait to see how the Napa and Sonoma fire smoke affected fruit that remained on the vines. That specific environmental contribution to the 2017 harvest may require wines to settle for a few years before the indelible smoke is absorbed and refined during the maturing process.

If the wine smells like the inside of a Band Aid box, Brettanomyces bruxellensis has been alive and well in the process. There are differences of opinion about this yeast that thrives in wine’s warm temperatures and high pH in older oak barrels. “Brett” can slowly colonize in the older oak barrels, but it’s usually present in red wines and not always a negative, depending on its severity.
The aroma rising from a hot bicycle tire skid can come from a too-high, too-fast fermentation cycle. The yeast burned out, leaving a nuance of rotten egg or burned rubber tire.

The contributions of additional ingredients in the winemaking process can’t be ignored. Sulfites and potassium sorbate can protect the integrity of the wine and fight off unwanted bacteria. If the wine is not “standing up” on its own, powders made of grape seeds and tree bark provide tannic structure. One of the qualities of a balanced wine is the measure of acid, which contributes to healthy aging of the wine. Citric acid can be added to provide a brighter composition; Mega Purple, a highly concentrated grape juice containing very little sugar, contributes color, body and flavor to wine blends.

Wine is a living product. From the moment of harvest to the moment it fills your glass, wine has been settling, maturing and re-settling every time it’s shipped and exposed to consistent temperature and light. Wine likes consistency; when conditions vary, the finished wine is affected. If it was too warm during shipping and storage, the wine may have aged too quickly and completely changed to something that lacks body, flavor and finish.

How can winemakers and sommeliers tell you exactly where the wine came from and what varietal it is? These accomplished professionals are wizards of wine’s sense of place. They can pick up all the nuances described; due to the unique environmental qualities of every area where a wine grape varietal is grown, sommeliers can decipher the growing location, year of the harvest and the quality of the wine simply from a sip or two.

Bud break is near. Spring will show off new growth in the vineyards and we’ll eagerly await the 2022 harvest!

Sources: aromadictionary.com, kelloggs.com, winemag.com and winemakermag.com.