ask dr. vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs.


Dear Dr. Vinny,

I'm a new "casual student" of wines. As wines are made from wine grapes, where do all the other cherry, licorice, leather, plum, etc. scents and flavors come from?

—Jessica D., Ely, Minn.

Dear Jessica,

Wine descriptors have both a semantic and a scientific foundation. Let's start with the semantic part, which can be baffling to many wine newbies because it sometimes seems so high-falutin'. (And sometimes it is.)

The vocabulary (and poetic license) wine lovers use to communicate what they taste or smell in a wine is just that—a vocabulary. If your bedmate's snores remind you of a chainsaw, if your mother-in-law's turkey is as dry as sandpaper, if the sulfury smell of a match reminds you of scrambled eggs, you're using the power of words to describe things the way wine lovers do.

Scientifically, aromas and flavors in wine come from both the grapes and the fermentation process. Each grape variety has a unique physiological makeup with aromatic compounds that vary with how the grapes are grown (both climate and farming practices). These are then amplified or modified during fermentation, which can vary with the type of yeast and fermentation process. Hundreds of aromatic compounds called esters are released during fermentation. Some of these esters contain the same molecules that are found in things like vanilla, cherries, honey and roses. In fact, many of the descriptors have a chemical foundation. It's simply a matter of recognizing them and putting words to them.

—Dr. Vinny


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