Is it possible to tell if the grapes that went into a wine were “stressed”?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

A friend told me that when tasting wine, he could taste that the grapes were “stressed.” Can you really tell that the grapes were stressed, and what should one look for if that’s the case?

—Alex D., Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Dear Alex,

There are different ways to answer this question. First, there’s a romantic notion that stressed grapes—that is, grapes grown under the most difficult conditions—produce the best wine. The idea is that as a vine struggles, it produces fewer grapes, but ones of better quality. That’s not necessarily so. Growing grapes is more complicated than that—it’s more about balancing the needs of a healthy vine while using various farming techniques to promote desired flavors and characteristics. In this way, can you taste if a wine is stressed (or relaxed, which I guess would be the opposite of stressed)? No, I don’t think so.

There’s one exception, and that is when “stress” refers to water stress in grapes. If a vine has too much water, the plant might focus too much energy into vegetative growth or produce large, dilute berries. If a vine has insufficient water, it might react by producing smaller berries, or not ripen properly because it’s becoming dehydrated, possibly shutting down before ripening fully. I believe you can taste some effects of wine made from water-stressed grapes—they take on dehydrated flavors similar to raisins, or baked, cooked aromatics, and can be coarser in texture.

—Dr. Vinny

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