You may have noticed that people tend to describe wine in flowery terms – often making for confusing summaries on the back of the label, usually also riddled with buzzwords. But one thing enthusiasts and experts alike do is describe the different flavours of wine in relation to other things they taste like – such as cherry, pepper and strawberry – but importantly, none of these flavours are ever added to the wine… it’s all grapes, baby!
So, if they’re not added or somehow directly influencing the wine, how does a liquid that is basically only grape juice end up inheriting these flavours and tones of so many other tasty and invocative things?
It turns out, that grapes are both a delicate and impressionable fruit, very sensitive to changes in the environment in which they are planted. Every decision a winemaker makes during the process of growing, making and fermenting wine – everything from how and where the grapes are grown, to how they are picked, the process of juicing, what vats or barrels they are put in and how long for - impact the flavours the wine will develop at the end.
Some winemakers say that in order to make the ‘best’ wines, you have to start in the vineyard. It might seem obvious, but appropriate and effective farming techniques for the climate and area in which a vineyard exists is usually a sure-fire way to create great wine, and it is at this very early stage where the grapes also first come in contact with elements that can influence the wine’s flavour profile and resulting characteristics.
Interestingly, bees are to wine what they also are to cross-pollination of other flowers and plants. If for example, a vineyard is surrounded by native plants such as wild herbs, flowers and grasses, any bees in the area will effectively distribute pollen around the vineyard and in doing so, impart into the grapes these local flavours. As the grapes ripen, they begin to absorb the subtle notes from these plants.
Even the air (and what is carried with it, of course) can have a substantial impact on the different characteristics a wine can obtain as the grapes grow and ripen. This is prevalent for regions where they have perfected the art of growing grapes on seaside hills and cliffs – think of all that salty sea air the grapes grown on Waiheke would be absorbing! The grapes also grown in places like Spain and Greece get sea spray, and that typically results, especially in white wine, as a fresh taste, often described as ‘minerality’. In layman’s terms, it means the wine can actually taste and smell like a fresh sea breeze.
After the grapes are ripened, harvested and moved from the vineyard to the cellar, the winemaker’s decisions become a little more definitive in influencing the individual fruit, earthy and other notes imparted onto any one individual type of wine. How the grapes are processed and pressed for their juice, whether these juices are aged and fermented in steel vats or oak barrels, and how long the winemaker keeps the wine maturing in total is all contributing unique flavours and notes (or ‘smells’) into a wine.
All of these factors and more all have an influence on the overall taste and smell of the wine – this list is of course not exhaustive! Considering the humble grape is so flexible and adaptable to its surroundings and processes explains how and why so many of us pick up different characteristics when tasting and smelling the exact same wine. This is probably one of the things that makes drinking and trying new wines so fun – and also why on our own cheat sheets, we say ‘you may taste’ the notes and flavours we taste – because you may pick up something totally different!
The more wine you drink, the more refined your palate will become and you’ll start to notice that edge of vanilla, the burst of spice – so as always, we encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and try some beautiful wine – of which, we’ve always got you covered.
Just in case you aren’t a Champagne pro, we’ve compiled a handy list of hints to up your game – with plenty of time before the festive season kicks off this year to get you into the groove!
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