The Grape Vine
By Elspeth Brown
I remember watching the movie French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline for the first time. My favorite part was when Kate (Ryan) and Luc (Kline) are in his childhood bedroom. Luc has Kate taste wine, close her eyes, smell herbs he harvested when he was young and then taste the wine again. It was a magical scene. Her face softened as she rolled the wine around in her mouth, tasting brand new flavors. The herbs and spices she smelled brought out nuances in the wine that had not been noticeable before. I remember thinking, Wow, I want to taste wine like that.
When we have private tastings in the store, one of my favorite activities is to have each customer take a sip of wine, take a bite of buttery cheese or bittersweet chocolate and then take another sip. They see then how the wine changes—because it will. Is it better or worse? Drier or sweeter? Tart or juicy? Tannic or smooth? Then I have them take a bite of a sweet chocolate ganache or an aged cheese, after which they take another sip to discover a completely different flavor in the wine.
This is such a neat experiment when trying to find flavors in a wine that you might not normally taste. Your palate might be able to taste the herbs that were grown close to the vines, the type of soil the vine thrived in or even the impurities. There are surprising flavors like moldy towel, banana, popcorn, cat pee, petrol, raw meat, cigars and burnt rubber. One of my employees always pulls out the craziest flavors in a wine—everything from cotton candy and lipstick to rocks and sunshine. To be able to taste like that is a gift.
Many times I have had customers ask if there really is chocolate in the wine, or if the winemaker blended grapefruit juice into the sauvignon blanc. The winemakers did not. But they didn’t need to. There are many different varietals that can influence the flavors of wine, including different grapes, the terroir, fermentation yeasts and barrels.
The grape itself is the biggest influence in the flavor of the wine. Some varietals have very specific characteristics, such as Viognier grapes that tend to taste very floral.
The terroir, or climate and soil, is probably the second largest factor in flavor. For instance, grapes grown in limestone soil offer bright acidity. Riesling grapes that have had a lot of exposure to bright sunlight will develop a petrol flavor, which is highly regarded, and a great example of climate influence.
Yeasts are fungi that convert sugars into alcohol during winemaking. There is naturally occurring yeast on the grapes that begin fermentation and then the winemaker will usually add yeast to help finish the process. There are thousands of different strands of yeast and all offer their own set of flavors.
Lastly, the way you age a wine affects the flavors significantly. A wine aged in oak barrels can introduce aromas of vanilla, clove and smoke, to name a few.
With so many ways to affect and change the flavors in wine, there will always be underlying layers to tempt your taste buds. Have fun finding flavors!