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Chemistry 101

By Michael "Ty, the Wine Guy" Taiani csw

If wine is just fermented grapes, then why are pineapples, apples, and kiwi fruit, with complements of spice, butterscotch, coconut, caramel, vanilla and toasty oak in my glass?

If you’ve ever had the chance to taste wine grape juice before it’s been fermented (known as free-run), you know it doesn’t taste anything like the finished product, because frankly, it tastes just like grape juice. So how do all of those fruits, spices, other unique flavors arrive in any one of our Hudson Valley wines? Many have asked me, “Do the winemaker(s) physically add flavor components to make a wine taste a particular way?” Well, the answer is simply, “No.”

It’s time to introduce those chemical compounds found in wine known as phenols. There are thousands of them! Don’t worry if high school chemistry wasn’t your thing—it’s just important to know that they’re responsible for most of all there is to see, smell, and taste in a wine. Take, for example, Clearview Vineyard’s Estate Seyval Blanc with its nuances of apples and melons; and Benmarl’s award-winning Baco Noir with its peppery, cherry fruit. Now if each wine’s respective maker didn’t toss bushels of apples and bing cherries into the fermentation mix, then how did the flavors get there? The answer: As the wines fermented, natural chemical compounds (phenols) were formed, and these same compounds happen to produce, yes, the scents and flavors of apples, melons, and cherries.

How does this happen? During the fermentation process, as the yeasts eat the grape sugars and convert them to alcohol, heat is produced, which in turn, forms thousands of various and complex chemical compounds. It is these ubiquitous compounds, as I mentioned, that take on similar molecular arrangements to “familiar” scents that our nose and brain can categorize. So, sticking with apples, when a white wine undergoes (secondary) malolactic fermentation (the process that basically converts the tart, malic acid compounds formed during the original fermentation to lactic acid compounds), the compounds that are produced are known to give the wine its Granny Smith apple–like scents and flavors. Got it?

In addition to the natural phenols, there are several other influencing factors known to impact, or even create, a wine’s overall taste profile. They can include climate, vineyard topography, and/or the varietal itself. But a certain favorite of mine and perhaps yours, too, is the one associated with the use of oak barrels. Since the days of Roman times, oak barrels have been used in the winemaking process. Their ever-leaching compounds enhance the aroma, taste, and even the texture of wine in a manner similar to the way the use of spices enhance the flavors of foods. The use of oak during a wine’s production, both during and afterwards, brings a huge array of aromatic and taste qualities to wine that include coconut, toast, coffee, cloves, smoke, cedar, tobacco, and yes, Mexican vanilla – ay carumba!

With the diversity of Hudson Valley wines made from a variety of grapes—vinifera, hybrid and native—there are just as many diverse and descriptive words used to characterize them: Green apples, honeydew melons, pears, pineapples, strawberries, bing cherries, plums, blueberries, cranberries, honeysuckle, yeast, apricots, vanilla, peaches, honey, pomegranates, grapefruits, toast, cloves, and asparagus. Now that’s a lot of phenols!


Michael Taiani Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), aka “Ty the Wine Guy,” is a food and wine consultant and marketer. Assisting people with food and wine is his passion.

Hudson Valley Wine magazine Summer 2014 issue

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