By Dave Solzman
Owner, Delius Restaurant
There seems to be no end to the scents and flavors that people detect while giving their first impression of a wine. Could they really be tasting all those fruit flavors; black currant, blackberry, cherry, pineapple, lemon, lime, peach, apricot, apple and pear? And how about those non-fruit flavors? Wine is made from grapes, so how do you explain descriptors such as leather, tobacco, coffee, mineral and nutty? In this article I won’t even try to explain terms like petroleum, forest floor, Band-Aid and cat pee. Yes, they are real and valid wine descriptors, but I will save them for another discussion.
The answer comes to us through chemistry. Now, before your eyes glaze over, it’s really very simple. Everything is made up of chemical compounds. Each type of fruit has “flavor compounds” that produce its specific scent and taste. These chemicals that are so abundant in their respective fruits can also be present in much smaller amounts in wine grapes. In fact, grapes are known to have an astounding number of these compounds from all over the “vegetable kingdom.” Other chemical compounds called esters and aldehydes are responsible for even more flavors and are created during the fermentation process. This is why, upon tasting a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, you may often detect the flavor of grapefruit. It’s not because the winemaker mixed some Ocean Spray Ruby Red into the vat. It’s because the specific chemical compounds that grapefruits get their flavor from exist naturally in very small amounts in those grapes. Through the magic of winemaking, these flavors become more noticeable and voilà, you detect the taste of one fruit in the fermented juice of another. These compounds, along with other influences such as the use of oak barrels and various winemaking techniques, also explain the non-fruit descriptors which fall into the categories of earth or wood.
Knowing that these scents and flavors truly exist is a long way from actually detecting them. Evaluating wine accurately by sight, smell and taste takes discipline and practice. I know that sounds like the world’s greatest job for a wine lover, but you have to realize that true wine professionals spend hours at a time tasting wines and spitting each one out. As much as this sounds like heresy (and a little gross) it’s the only real way to train your palate.
The next time you can’t taste a flavor that someone else claims is in the wine, just remember; maybe it’s in there and maybe it’s not. The important thing is that you keep tasting and keep trying. With practice, you begin to improve your palate and your confidence.