How can a wine taste like fruits other than grapes?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

How can wine, which is made from grapes, taste like grapefruit or some other fruit?

—Nilo, Rotterdame, Netherlands

Dear Nilo,

That’s one of the most confusing things about wine. Where do all the grapefruit flavors (and cherry, spice, chocolate, tobacco and so on) come from?

Grapes themselves have flavors that might remind you of other tastes or smells, and fermentation, the process by which yeast converts the sugars in grape juice into alcohol, unlocks chemical compounds that are shared by other fruits and foods. There are dozens if not hundreds of compounds like esters, pyrazines, terpenes, thiols, lactones and more that can be found in wine, and if you start mixing and matching them, you get more complex flavors and aromas. Oak barrels also add flavors like spice, caramel, toast and cedar when wines are aged or fermented in them.

Wine critics and aficionados have developed a language for communicating about wine, and that includes describing the flavors and aromas a wine reminds them of. And it’s not unique to wine: Beer geeks, Scotch lovers and coffee connoisseurs are just a few of the people dedicated to a particular beverage or food who use a robust vocabulary to describe them.

—Dr. Vinny

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