If wine is made from just grapes how come some people can taste different fruits like cherry, pear or passion fruit? You often hear descriptions like butter, vanilla, clove and even bacon. So where do these flavors come from and what are the most common in wine?
Let’s break down aromas in wine and classify some familiar grape varieties so you can explore wine through fruit aromas.
Where do flavors in wine come from?
If you ever have a chance to taste a fresh Chardonnay grape you’ll see how wildly different it is than Chardonnay wine. A Chardonnay grape tastes very different than the apple, lemon and butter flavors associated with Chardonnay wine.
Why are grapes different than wine? This is because all the aroma compounds —stereoisomers as scientists call them— are released by the fermentation as well as the alochol in wine. Alcohol is volatile (i.e. it is a gas at room temperature) and it carries these lighter-than-air aroma compounds into your nose. Every wine has many different aroma compounds. Each compound can affect the flavor of another or the overall flavor of a wine. This is why some Chardonnays taste different than others. Also, our brains can think of multiple answers to one stereoisomer (crazy, right!?). For example, the lychee fruit flavor in Gewürztraminer can also smell like roses.
Fruit Flavors in Red Wine
Red wines typically fall into two different categories: red fruit and black fruit flavors. The reason to differentiate the two types is to be able to identify a wine in a blind tasting or to pick a favorite. Within each style there is a fair amount of variance. For instance, Lambrusco is typically considered a light red wine in terms of color and body. However in tasting a Lambrusco, many of them exhibit tart blueberry flavors making Lambrusco an example of a ‘black fruit’ aromatic wine. Also, we always have to separate aromas (smells) from tastes (sweet, sour, bitter) in wine…
Most wines with ‘black fruit’ aromas are full-bodied red wines with all the associated extra tannins. Of course there are some full-bodied red-fruited wines and some lighter, fresher, black-fruited wines. As always, there are exceptions. Knowing this about a wine will make you more adept at food pairing.
See the Basic Wine Guide
Red blends are a mix
Red wine blends are the opportunity to blend red and black flavors together. A great example of a wine with both red and black fruit flavors is the GSM blend. This is a wine blend originating from the Côtes du Rhône of France made with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (Mourvedre is a full-bodied, generally black-fruited grape). Like blending colors on a palate, winemakers take a large portion of Grenache and touch it with little bits of Syrah and Mourvedre to add body and complexity.
If you are tasting a red blend, try to pick out both the red and black fruit flavors. In doing so, you’ll actually be picking out the different wines used to create that blend. Experts can even isolate the flavors in their mouth and make an estimate as to what the blend contains.
Fruit Flavors in White Wine
White wines offer two major fruit types: Tree-fruity vs. Citrusy. The more you taste, the more you’ll realize that the same type of wine will vary wildly depending on where it’s grown. For instance, tasting a Chenin Blanc from South Africa will taste much riper and lusher, whereas Chenin Blanc from Anjou in the Loire Valley, France will have much more ripe-to-under-ripe fruit aromas, even though aromas for all typical Chenins will always center around bruised apple and lemon-y type aromas.
When you taste a white wine, think about the type of flavor and then focus on the ripeness of that flavor. Below is a great example of how ripeness affects the flavor of white wine:
Our noses interpret smells differently
Our noses interpret and prioritize aroma compounds differently and we also adapt to different ’smell’ environments. For instance, have you worked in a room with a scented candle and after a few minutes can no longer smell it. It’s possible to get over-exposed to a wine’s aroma.
Fortunately, most people agree on major flavor categories when it comes to wine. At the end of the day, we’re all smelling the same wine, we just usually use slightly different descriptors, but it’s generally easy for people to agree on fat-brush or “macro” categories for the flavors in wines, even if they disagree on the specifics. One person’s peach may be another person’s nectarine, but they both can agree a wine has stone fruit.