Wednesday, July 9, 2008

How Do They Get That From A Grape?

It's late evening and I'm sitting out on my balcony sipping Temecula's own Falkner Winery 2004 Merlot. I always enjoy reading the tasting notes for wine and on their Web site you can find the following:

2004 Merlot
This Merlot is deep in color, rich in flavors, and very elegant in style. Enjoy the lovely black cherry aroma, the delicious black cherry flavor, and the delicate anise flavors on the finish.

Nice deep color, hints of cherry on the nose, not unbalanced, and the taste delivers on what the nose telegraphs with a medium finish (and yes there are touches of anise). Not a bad job there Falkner.

What is interesting is that the taste and the aroma aren't described as "grape". In fact, just scanning the descriptions on the Falkner site you see: black cherry, red cherry, blackberry, vanilla, green olive, plum, tobacco, smoke, peach, pineapple and grapefruit among others. Pick any winery site, scan their tasting notes and you will find many of these same aromas and flavors. Thinking on this I recall something someone recently asked me: "How much pineapple do you have to add to wine to get this flavor?" OK, don't giggle, it's a legitimate question and a nod goes to the wine maker whose wine can telegraph that to a novice. But have you stopped to think just how wine, basically grape juice, sugar, and yeast, can produce such a wide range of aromas and flavors? Amazing, isn't it, but except for perhaps some hints of vanilla ,coconut and butter (and maybe a little yeast from the process) all of those wonderful fruits, berries, and Old English attributes (tobacco, smoke, leather) tend to come from that simple little mixture in the hands of a vintner.

What's the trick? It's your nervous system. You see, incoming scents are picked up by the olfactory epithelium, a dime-sized patch of nerve endings located deep within the retronasal cavity inside your head. The nerves in the olfactory epithelium then send signals to the olfactory bulb in the brain where they are interpreted. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system where emotion and memory are processed. Since you associate memories with odors and flavors, you are reliving associations your brain has made in the past. The more foods you have tried and the more you have thought about the food while you eat, the wider range of associations can be made. You can find a lot more information on the actual chemistry here. The important idea to take from this is that your mind is telling you that there is some chemical that you have experienced before and the brain has associated something with that chemical, not that the aroma or flavor has been manipulated by adding what you experience to the wine + sugar + yeast formula. Don't get me wrong, the master vintner can do things to manipulate the basic formula (say fermenting in oak to add touches of vanilla or coconut or putting the wine through malolactic fermentation to "round the edges" and introduce a hint of buttery goodness), but no one is putting pineapple juice in your wine... we hope.

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