If wine is made only from grapes, where do all the other flavors come from?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Wine is produced from grapes! Profound statement. To my knowledge that is the only fruit in wine. But some wine reviews state there is, say, a hint of apple or citrus or berries. Where do the other flavors come from? In the production of wine, does the producer know what “hints” may appear? Do different reviews of the same bottle of wine ever differ as to the “hints”? I am not knowledgable about wine, I just know what I enjoy.

—David H., Virgina

Dear David,

Before I get to the core of your question, I’d just like to point out that wine can indeed be made from other fruits. I’ve had some pretty good wines made from cherries and plums, but they tend to be on the sweet side. Here’s my explanation of why grapes are uniquely suited to making wine.

You’re correct that traditional wine is made from grapes and only from grapes. When the grapes ferment into wine, something magical happens, and chemical compounds are created that are identical to chemical compounds found in other fruits and foods. So on one level, when a reviewer is picking up a hint of berry, they might actually be identifying a berry compound. There are hundreds of these compounds, called esters. Differences in grapes, in fermentation yeasts, in barrel choices and in many other winemaking decisions can all affect the way these flavors and aromas present themselves.

It gets even more complicated than that, because in trying to describe wine, each reviewer is going to use their own language (and thus their own experiences) to paint a picture of what they taste and smell. I grew up with a sassafras tree in my backyard, so sometimes I pick up a note of sassafras, but my “sassafras” might be someone else’s “root beer” or “cola” note. I’m not going to pretend that I’m actually picking up every single chemical compound when a wine reminds me of a smell or flavor, but it certainly explains why there is some consensus about how wines taste and smell.

Do winemakers know what nuances they’re going for in production? I think yes, some winemakers are trying to coax certain specific notes out of a wine, while others may just be trying to evoke as much complexity as possible, without focusing on particular elements to emphasize.

I know that sometimes all this wine-speak can seem a bit pretentious, but I just bought a pound of coffee today that was described as having notes of “toffee and chocolate-covered pretzels,” which I picked over the one that was “crisp, with tangerine notes.” And even if you might not like talking about wine in these terms, I like to point out that not only can most people taste a difference between Coke and Pepsi, most have a preference between the two, and can even explain why.

—Dr. Vinny

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