Wine gets Sciencey: Oak Flavors

wine tastine 101

This morning, I attended a seminar called “Oak Aromas: Bridging Analysis and Sensory”, and it was really cool. I’ve known for a long time that wine, while obviously an art, is hugely about science (chemistry students, don’t overlook winemaking as your career!), but I’ve never delved much into the chemistry components of wine myself. Today, we talked a lot about the different aroma compounds in wine barrels that give oaked wines some very distinctive smells and how labs can isolate and measure how much of each compound is present in a particular wine.

So, remember when we talked about oak barrels and what flavors you might find in oaked wineIt turns out that scientifically, all those flavors are very much present. The compounds that give, say, vanilla and cloves their aromas are also present in the oak barrels, so those specific smells can be detected in wines that have been aged in oak long enough. French oak has a different composition than, say, American oak, so the wines will smell different depending on which type of oak a winemaker uses.

Different compounds are released at different temperatures, so toasting the inside of a barrel will release different flavors as well. If one cooper (barrel maker) toasts her barrels at a lower temperature, the barrels will have a different flavor than those of the cooper up the road who toasts his barrels at a higher temperature. 

I think it’s fascinating that there are chemical reasons why we smell or taste the flavors we do in wine; I’ve always thought that everyone tastes or smells something a little different in each wine. I’m not convinced this isn’t the case; people could have different thresholds at which they sense each compound, and wine is pretty complex, so there’s no saying how each component is mixing with the others. I also firmly believe that everyone has different associations with aromas; I might smell cherry while someone else associates that same smell with strawberries.

I love working in the wine industry because I learn so much all the time! Between all the varieties, wine regions, and wine science, I feel like I will never run out of things to learn!


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