How does an oenologist find the taste of raspberry, plum, jalapeño or banana in wine? A mixture of chemistry and poetry has given rise to a strange and fascinating language.
The way an oenologist describes a wine could be a real puzzle: “Green apple flavor, a hint of plum, with notes of camphor and jasmine aroma,” for example. At the end, what should be a practical review ends up looking like a riddle. However, the habit of giving this drink characteristics that, in theory, it does not have is not actually so whimsical. Let’s be clear: wine is only made of grapes and nothing is added to give it a particular flavor.
Wine masters Matt Stamp and Geoff Kruth, of the Court of Master Sommeliers, conducted a research on this matter and found three kinds of flavors in the wines: fruit, floral and herbal flavors, earthy or mineral flavors, and spice flavors. This could simplify the description of a wine, but these are only families that contain hundreds of specific flavors.
Let’s blame chemistry.
When grapes ferment and begin their transformation into wine, this process creates chemical compounds which are often the same as those found in fruits and other foods. That’s why somebody can really feel the taste of banana, plum or even bacon in a wine, not to mention jalapeño or “freshly cut grass” flavors.
These chemical compounds are called “esters”, but an expert oenologist will call a flavor “berry” or “currant” instead of stating a boring scientific formula. What’s more: the day you read a review that says a wine has an “exquisite taste of hydrogen sulfide, notes of pyrazine and thiol, and a delicious smell of phenolic haze,” you better stop reading and go for water.
There are hundreds of esters and they depend on many factors, mainly the type of grape used, fermentation and aging. The grape ripeness at harvest, its time of insolation, the weather, the soil where vines are grown, their age, the barrels… All these agents give each wine a particular personality.
This does not mean wine critic won’t takes some “poetic licenses,” so to speak. An oenologist from Wine Spectator by the name of Dr. Vinifera says that there was a sassafras tree in the house where he lived as a child, and that’s why he frequently finds notes of sassafras in wine. “However, my sassafras could be for someone else’s notes of root beer or cola,” he says, admitting the personal nature of his reviews.
The language of taste
The vastness of wine flavors—and the creativity to describe them—could also be consequence of the old complicity between wine and poetry. Anyone who’s ever wanted to describe a flavor knows it takes some imagination to put the language of taste into words.
Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda and Charles Baudelaire are just some of the those responsible for a tremendous encyclopedia of universal metaphors and images around wine. However, some may righteously claim this love was not about wine but about poetic drunkenness. Legend has it that the Chinese poet Li Bai, who dedicated an overwhelming amount of poems to this drink, died trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in a river. He was fatally tipsy at his final moment, but he died happy—no doubt about it.
Next time you drink wine, try to identify in its flavor and aroma, the fruits, spices or simply the memories your palate dictates. And write them down, if you can. You never know when the Muse of poetry may come your way. ♦
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