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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Where do wine flavors and aromas come from? If a wine tastes like grapefruit does that mean that there used to be grapefruit trees growing in the vineyard?
—Dee, Carlsbad, Calif.
That's a good question, but the answer isn't that simple.
Before I try to answer where all those amazing flavors and aromas come from, I can tell you that, for the most part, it has nothing to do with any strawberries or apples or oranges that might have previously grown where the vineyard is planted. (There are a few notable exceptions to that, but we'll get to those later.)
Grapes themselves have flavors that might remind you of other fruits or other tastes or smells. Then the magic of fermentation unlocks more chemical compounds that are shared by other fruits and foods. Wine can contain dozens if not hundreds of esters, pyrazines, terpenes, thiols, lactones and other organic compounds, and when you start mixing and matching them together you get more and more aromas and flavors. When we taste wine, those compounds are responsible for the flavors and aromas we're identifying.
Oak barrels also add flavors like spice, caramel, vanilla, toast or cedar (some of those are lactones and thiols). But there are plenty of other winemaking decisions that can influence the flavors, from when the grapes are picked to the active yeast strain in fermentation to blending and so on. Vintage conditions also play a part.
Getting back to my earlier point, soil and weather are the two most important factors to how a grape grows, so they have everything to do with how that grape is going to taste, but flavors can't be absorbed from soil into a grapevine. However, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence (and even some scientific evidence) that vineyards near eucalyptus trees can yield wines with eucalyptus notes, due either to eucalyptus leaves getting mixed in with the grapes when they're harvested, or to eucalyptol (eucalyptus oil), adhering to the grape skins. Wine flavors can also be impacted by wildfires, when volatile phenols in smoke permeate grape skins. That's known as smoke taint, and it's definitely a flaw.
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