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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Please tell me how wines acquire the different flavors and tastes like black currant, spice, chocolate, cinnamon, herbs, etc.? Surely they're not blended in with the grapes?
—Romy, Manila, Philippines
While there have been wines made with infusions of fruits, spices and other flavorings, modern wines are made solely from grapes, and their flavors come solely from the grapes themselves and from the winemaking process.
So why do tasting notes refer to flavors such as chocolate, cinnamon, etc.? There are two explanations for the use of wine descriptors.
The first is a scientific explanation with a chemical foundation. During fermentation, hundreds of aromatic compounds called esters are released. Some of these esters contain the same molecules that are found in things like vanilla, cherries, and roses. So, if someone smells roses in a wine, they might actually be identifying a chemical compound present both in that wine and in roses.
On the other hand, the taster might just have a good imagination. When someone describes, say, "cinnamon" in a wine, they might not be actually experiencing the cinnamon chemical compound, they might just taste something that reminds them of cinnamon. The way we describe wine is limited to the available vocabulary and to experiences we've already had. So, flavors, textures and even the personalities of wine are sometimes described in language that might seem a bit opaque and flowery. In fact, "opaque and flowery" might also describe a dessert wine. See what I mean?
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