Wine 101: origin of flavor & tannin

The origin of flavor

The actual “flavor” of wine is essentially a byproduct of smell.  If you have a bad cold and have temporarily lost your sense of smell, all foods and beverages taste pretty much the same – not much of anything apart from the basic sensations of sweet, sour and bitter.

The aroma or fragrance of wine is therefore critical to the distinguishing of the flavor profile of one grape as opposed to another.  The characteristic aroma of Chardonnay, for example, is often thought of as similar to apples; and since Chardonnay is also typically fermented and/or aged in French oak barrels, which impart vanillin or toasty qualities, the typical description of a Chardonnay might be:  “appley, with creamy, smoky oak qualities.”

Albariño, on the other hand, tends to yield more flowery scents, giving fruit sensations suggesting lime or stone fruits like peach and nectarines.  Sauvignon Blanc is typically green melony, often tinged by green leafy, grassy, herbal or flinty/minerally qualities that only accentuate the grape’s natural tartness.

Classic Zinfandel in Lodi, with uneven sized berries

Among reds, the aroma and flavor of Zinfandel is often related to berries, from cherries and strawberry to raspberries and blackberries, along with spicy notes suggesting blackpepper, and sometimes even cinnamon or clove.  Because Zinfandel clusters often ripen uneven sized berries, Zinfandels often have a “jammy” characteristic in the nose and flavor; that jamminess coming from the tinier, nearly raisiny sized berries in the bunches.

Cabernet Sauvignon typically has an intense black fruit or blackcurrant-like aroma and flavor (while elusive, blackcurrants smell like a cross between shriveled blackberries, honeyed fruit liqueurs, stems of green weeds and dry wood), often in addition to minty or cedary notes that result from the interaction of the wine when aged in toasted white oak barrels.

Classic Syrah: dark, rich, full flavor & tannin

The effect of tannin on taste

Tannins are derived from skins, seeds and stems of grapes; and because red wines are fermented with skins, seeds, and sometimes stems (when whole clusters are added to fermentors), they tend to have discernible levels of tannin.  The taste of tannin – by itself, a bitter, astringent sensation – adds to sensations of fullness, or “body.”

Level of tannin is not so much a major factor in white wines, since whites are not fermented with skins.  However, there are also tannins in oak barrels, traditionally used to ferment and age certain varieties like Chardonnay; and there are very mild sensations of tannin in more serious Chardonnays, although to a much lesser extent than in typical red wines.

Although there really are no food-and-wine “rules,” heavier tannin red wines do, in fact, help the palate digest heavier, fattier foods such as red meat (beef, lamb and fleshy game).  Many wine lovers are well aware of the fact that softer tannin red wines, such as Pinot Noir and Primitivo (a clonal variation of Zinfandel, usually producing softer, fruitier reds), make wonderful matches with fleshier fish such as tuna and salmon, as well as white fish in richer sauces (such as veal stock reductions).

Tannin in wines can also act as a natural preservative.  Red wines with generous amounts of tannin are also well known as the wines most likely to age gracefully (on the other hand, for lack of tannin white wines generally do not benefit from aging at all).  The red wines most associated with Napa Valley and France’s Bordeaux region, for instance, are those made primarily from the dark, thick skinned, high tannin Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, and are therefore prized by collectors who like to cellar such wines for a good ten, twenty years or longer.

But high amounts of tannin are not necessarily indicators of actual quality in the long term.  The great red wines of France’s Burgundy region, for instance, are made from the lower tannin, thinner skinned Pinot Noir grape; but because these wines are yield such intense, classically balanced, harmonious wines, they often mature more beautifully than many reds from Bordeaux.

California grown Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots can be extremely high in tannin; but because they ripen in a warmer climate than Bordeaux’s – producing wines with more fruit forward aromas and rounder palate sensations – many wine lovers prefer to drink them much sooner (within the first ten, twelve years) than they would red wines from Bordeaux.

It’s often noted that Cabernet Sauvignons as well as Zinfandels grown in Lodi tend to be softer, rounder, even more fruit focused than those of, say, Napa Valley.  But not because Lodi is so much warmer than Napa Valley – growing temperatures in Lodi are pretty much the same as the middle of Napa Valley – but because soils in Lodi tend to be very deep, rich and sandy, allowing for extensive root systems and, ultimately, highly productive plants, giving very fruit forward wines.

The variety of grape, in other words, primarily determines the level of tannin found in red wines; but climate, soil, and all other aspects effecting vine growth are also big factors in how tannin effects taste and the aging potential of wines.

Our next wine 101:  how is wine properly tasted?

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