What You’re Tasting in Wine ~ 10 Rules

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI’m a little too busy to write a post this week, so I’m republishing a post from a few years ago.  Good Reads Wednesday will appear as ususal, and I’ll post something new next Monday.  Here goes:

Because there’s so much misinformation out there about flavors in wine, I thought some “quick and dirty” rules for red wine would be helpful. These rules should be taken for what they are, generalities that admit of exceptions.

Rule 1.  If you taste something in a wine that you would describe as a fruit flavor (e.g., strawberry, cherry), it probably comes from the grapes. If you taste something that you would describe as a spice (cloves, cinnamon, dill), it most likely comes from oak (though sometimes from something else, but not the grapes).

Rule 2.  If the wine tastes of green peppers or green olives, that comes from underripeness in the fruit. (In some wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, some, but not too much, of those flavors are normal, and are not a defect.)

Rule 3.   If you detect something that you would describe as wet socks, wet dog, barnyard, or Band-Aid, it comes from a yeast, Brettanomyces (often referred to as “Brett”). While many consider this a defect, to others these flavors add interest and complexity. However you feel about Brett, it is common in many Old World wines, particularly Burgundy. Brettanomyces can also result in a clove flavor, similar to what can result from oak.

Rule 4.  The rotten egg smell in some wines comes from the development of hydrogen sulfide. Left untreated, hydrogen sulfide can develop into other sulfidic compounds giving various off-flavors, including garlic, onion, rubber, asparagus, and canned corn.

Rule 5.  Flavors of cedar come from oak, usually French oak. American oak is more likely to contribute dill, honeyed, or coconut aromas. The scents resulting from oak also vary as a result of toast level. The lower toast levels contribute vanilla and spice notes; slightly higher toast levels contribute lead pencil and cedar, while the highest toast levels produce the smoky aromas, such as bacon and char. Since different types of barrels (or oak alternatives) made from different oaks and toasted to different levels can be blended into one wine, a wine can possess a number of these oak flavors.

Rule 6.   Different fruit flavors correspond with different ripeness levels in the fruit. Bright fruit (e.g., strawberry) is the earliest, then the dark fruits (progressing through cherry to blackberry), followed by prune, then raisin (overripe).

Rule 7.  If the wine smells like sherry, then it is “oxidized”, which, as its name implies, results when oxygen gets into the wine. Normally, the preservative sulfur dioxide in the wine binds to any oxygen, thus protecting against oxidation. Once the sulfur dioxide is exhausted, oxygen will interact with the wine to produce a chemical, acetaldehyde, which is what causes the oxidized aroma. Older wines, since more time allows more oxygen to seep into the wine through the cork, are more likely to be oxidized than young wines. Any wine left open too long after uncorking will become oxidized.

Rule 8.  If the wine smells like wet cardboard, it’s “corked”. “Corkiness” results from the presence of a chemical, TCA, which comes mostly, though not always, from bad corks.

Rule 9.  If a wine smells like nail polish remover (or less often vinegar), it is due to volatile acidity, which results from a microbial infection of the wine.

Rule 10.  A puckery, astringent sensation results from the tannins in wine. Technically, it’s not a flavor at all, but a tactile sensation. People vary greatly in how much they like or dislike tannins. A soft wine is one with less tannin, a structured wine with more.

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