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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I am curious as to the process how red wine can get to taste like toasty vanilla, sweet licorice and cinnamon spice, tobacco, toasty mocha, espresso, cherry cola, or rose petal. I understand that the winemaker certainly did not add elements such as vanilla, licorice, etc., to the wine, but how does the process of aging wine in French or American oak barrels have an affect as such? Some red wines can exhibit an abundance of nice bouquet/aroma but others have very little or no bouquet at all.

—D.T., Porter Ranch, Calif.

Dear D.,

Knowing that winemakers don’t actually add cinnamon and rose petals to a wine is a good start, and understanding that barrels impact a wine’s flavors is also useful information.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of science behind what makes wines taste and smell the way they do. Wine grapes on their own can vary in how they taste, and when grapes are fermented, these characteristics are amplified. It’s during fermentation that molecular compounds called esters are created. If you smell rose petals in a wine, it might be because you’re picking out esters that are in roses, too. Wines can be made up of dozens of these chemical compounds, and the person describing the wine is either picking up on these notes, or they’re just trying to find a way to say how the wine is distinctive. Please be patient with wine writers for their passion and crazy wine lingo.

Wooden barrels can be a big part of a wine’s profile, and they’re kind of like the spice rack of winemaking. A barrel can infuse the wine stored in it with different flavors, depending on what kind of barrel it is, how toasted it is, and how long the wine sits in it. So, a wine that spends only a few months in a lightly toasted barrel is going to have a different profile from even the same wine that sits for 18 months in a highly toasted barrel. You can see how a winemaker might even want to do both and then mix the two to come up with a complex blend.

Keep in mind that every decision a vintner makes along the way is going to have some sort of effect on how a wine tastes and smells. It depends not only on what kind of grapes they are, but how and where they’re grown, vintage variation, and the big decision: when they’re picked. A red wine can be fermented in different ways—some winemakers cold-soak the grapes, some ferment with whole clusters, and some use native yeast. Barrel regimen, bottle aging, and the other big decision—blending—can all have a huge impact on the final product. You could give 10 different winemakers access to the same grapes, and you’d probably get 10 distinctively different wines.

—Dr. Vinny

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