Erik Neilson on January 26, 2017 0 Comments Most wine lovers can remember back to the first time they really “got it.” Perhaps it was their first bottle of carefully produced Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, or their entry level experience with dry Riesling. Regardless of the wine, the “aha!” moment most likely had much to do with the flavors and aromas jumping out of the glass. Clearly, these can change dramatically depending upon grape variety, style, barrel usage and a handful of other factors. In most cases, however, the same group of chemical compounds are responsible for the incredible flavors and aromas experienced. Anyone who has ever read a wine review or description has likely encountered something along the lines of, “Blueberries and vanilla give way to soft flavors of herbaceous mint.” Are winemakers actually adding ingredients such as blueberries and mint to their products? In the vast majority of cases, absolutely not. That isn’t to say that these flavors and aromas aren’t real, however — they just come as a result of certain compounds that may also be found in the fruit or herbs mentioned in the description. Ever tasted a wine that brings to mind the smell of leather? What about Chardonnay that has been oaked for so long, it tastes like melted butter in a glass? All of these scents and tastes result from various compounds — let’s explore them, one by one. 1. Terpenes Terpenes are extremely interesting compounds found in a variety of different scenarios throughout nature. Sweet, floral, piney and herb-laden, terpenes are also major chemical compounds found in hops, which give beer that signature “pine tree” taste when used in large amounts. In wine, terpenes often give off scents of resinous oregano and rosemary, though flavors of black peppercorn, roses and lavender can also be attributed to these chemical compounds. Garden-fresh scents in wines like Gewürztraminer can easily be attributed to terpenes, as can the earthy aromas often present in Syrah. 2. Lactones If you’ve ever uncorked a bottle of wine, taken a whiff and immediately were hit with flavors and aromas reminiscent of coconut and vanilla, you can rest assured that you encountered what are referred to as “lactones”. Most people who like to drink Chardonnay can count at least one or two wines they’ve tasted over the years that were incredibly buttery, which is something that certain people actually look for in a wine — also due to the presence of lactones. Lactones may remind you of sweet cream, milk, even French toast. They tend to also relate to a thicker, fuller mouthfeel than what might be found in wines lacking their presence. In many cases, the vanilla qualities of lactones may lead to a “nutty” presence in the wine, too. 3. Esters Yeast plays a major role in the production of wine, but it’s capable of more than simply carrying out fermentation and producing alcohol. There are countless wines that give off aromas of fresh berries, and in most cases, this is due to the presence of esters. A product of acid that that can also be contributed to the wine via certain yeasts, esters are big and fruity, elevating even the most basic of wines to new heights. Think flavors such as fresh strawberries, ripe raspberries and juicy apple cider, and you’ll have a good idea of what esters are capable of lending to a glass of wine. 4. Thiols There are plenty of grapes that are inexplicably able to produce flavors like chocolate, cocoa and coffee. Many red blends feature these characteristics, and there are few wines better suited for drinking next to a roaring fire. Malbecs and Pinot Noirs both tend to be heavy with compounds called “thiols”, which smell not unlike the inside of a well-stocked spice cabinet. The smoky qualities of thiols can lead to wines that are ideal for pairing with grilled meats, though they also offer a backbone that makes wines heavy in thiols perfect for drinking by themselves without the accompaniment of food. 5. Pyrazines “Herbaceous” is a wine descriptor used quite frequently in the wine world, and for good reason. Many wines do indeed give off flavors not unlike those found in an herb garden, and more often than not, this is due to the presence of chemical compounds called “pyrazines”. Pyrazines give off vegetal smells and are also found in coffee and chocolate, where they lend a “green” effect that sometimes gets described as “fresh”. If you’ve ever had a Sauvignon Blanc that tasted like fresh-cut grass, this is pyrazines at work. 6. Sotolon Many wines feature flavors and aromas that call to mind one of the most enjoyable, naturally sweet substances known to the world: Honey. This is especially true in wines that have been affected by Noble Rot, which many winemakers actually encourage in order to create certain sweet wines. Sauternes comes to mind as a wine that brings to the palate flavors of ginger and overripe fruit, which can actually be traced to a chemical compound known as “Sotolon”. Sotolon is generally associated with dessert wines, though the compound can be present in a number of semi-sweet or off-dry wines as well. It’s closely linked to another compound known as “phenyl acetaldehyde”, which is also typically found in sweeter wines. 7. Sulphuric Compounds The smell of sulphur is something that many people recognize right off the bat, and it’s certainly not beloved by all. It may seem odd to attempt to create a wine rich in sulphur compounds, but the minerality found in many wines can actually be traced to these very compounds. In certain cases, sulphur can give off a very pleasant smell in wine — think the mild chalkiness associated with certain white grapes that are grown in volcanic soil. Off-tastes exist as well, however, which is why these compounds must be utilized carefully for best effect. At the end of the day, the flavor and aroma in a glass of wine will depend primarily on one thing — the grape. Once you understand the many chemical compounds that are behind the scenes doing all the heavy lifting, it’s possible to gain a stronger appreciation for just how complicated wine as a beverage actually is.