During the past few weeks I have been mentoring a Roosevelt High School student for her senior project. Her topic: Where does wine get its taste and flavors? It’s a simple question, one that I never consciously asked myself. Of course, my challenge was to give her an experience of wines using senses other than taste.
I began by making a list of everything I could think of that affects the taste of wine. I ended up with a rough list of about 20 sources and came to find there were many more.
Soon I realized that I had the answers to this question through my own studies. When I began learning about wine, I would read about specific wines we sold in the restaurant where I worked at the time. This led me to research the grape varieties and regions of the wines. Before I knew it, I was reading about components of grapes, weather patterns, terroir and soil types, root stocks, grafting, vineyard and vinification techniques, American oak, French oak, new versus used barrels, wood aging, bottle aging, wine storage, wine faults and more.
What all this boils down to is that a wine’s taste is the result of a series of choices made by the vineyard manager and the winemaker, with a little luck from Mother Nature; it also involves distributors and consumers. The process starts with vineyard managers and winemakers pairing grape varieties with soil types and weather. Then comes the decision of when to pick grapes and how to treat them from the vineyard to the winery. Making the wine falls under the control of the winemaker. Their techniques affect the outcome.
Next comes the question of storage and aging, which falls into the hands of winemakers or wineries, distributors and even the wine consumer. Consumers have the final say on how the wine will taste through myriad decisions: when to drink the wine in its life span, how it is paired with food, the temperature at which the wine is served, stemware selected, whether the wine is decanted, whether one is wearing perfume or cologne while drinking the wine, the presence of flowers or air fresheners, health and mood, and with whom one is sharing it.
Taste the same grape varieties from different regions and you’ll discover how soil types, weather and winemakers affect a wine’s overall taste. An easy start would be Sauvignon Blanc. Try one from Sancerre in France and compare it with one from New Zealand.
Can you taste hints of gooseberry, citrus and minerality notes of chalk or flint in the wine from Sancerre? Compare that with the New Zealand version, with its explosive tropical fruit flavors, green pepper and spice.
After pondering all this, I realize how inspiring it is to meet a high school student who’s taken a serious interest in the topic. It’s one that leads to fascinating careers and lifelong enjoyment.
Todd Ashline is the sommelier/restaurant director at Chef Mavro. Contact him at 944-4714 or visit www.chefmavro.com.