Where Do the Plums Come From?

The story behind that plummy aroma

 


Have you noticed that wine writers describe wine aromas as smelling like just about anything other than grapes? It’s a funny thing. Why the heck should the wine smell like plums when it’s made of grapes? *The UC Davis Wine Aroma Wheel includes dozens of descriptors, but no matter how hard you look at it, you won’t find grapes mentioned there. Doesn’t it feel like it’s almost an insult to describe the wine as grapey?

As you know, the plum, licorice or spice can’t be added unless it’s indicated on the label: “Plum-flavored wine.”

So, how does that stuff get in there? Sometimes, it's simply that the fragrance or flavor of the wine reminds us of tobacco or black olive. It's the best language we have to put across our impressions.

Plant science tells us that there are chemical cross-overs in the things you see growing outside your window. For instance, the tannin in wine comes primarily from the grape skins. But, there’s also tannin in tea leaves, which is why a strong cup of tea dries out your mouth. Cinnamon is also quite tannic. There’s wood tannin in oak, so we know that new barrels contribute tannin to the wine as it ages. If tea leaves, oak and Cabernet have tannin in common, why can't they have flavor compounds in common too?

So, the message is that there can be something of a grape in a plum and something of a plum in some grapes.

Plum image via Shutterstock
Sometimes there’s a good degree of certainty about the source of specific characteristics. For instance, the grassy, herbaceous character of Sauvignon Blanc can be chalked up to detectable levels of a compound called methoxy-pyrazine. It’s also found in asparagus, beets, bell peppers and other vegetables. Like TCA (cork taint), we’re very sensitive to it and can detect it at parts per trillion. It turns up, but to a lesser degree, in Merlot (cool-climate Merlot often reminds me of beets) and Cabernet Sauvignon. The pyrazine is more noticeable in cool-climate wines than in warm, which might explain why the Europeans are quite accepting of herbaceous character while California producers are terrified of it, especially in their reds.

Beside contributing tannin, new barrels impart a wide range of aromas, from fresh coconut to coffee. More on that in another piece.

Often, the source is uncertain. For instance, smoky character could be grape or barrel derived. Syrah is somewhat smoky by nature, but dark barrels also impart a smoky scent. Spice can come from the grape (Zinfandel) or the barrel, or who knows where.

Many of the characteristics, especially those derived from fermentation and aging, are not well understood. Some enologists believe that we mistakenly identify sulfur compounds as “terroir” flavors, or mineral characteristics, when they may actually be the result of fermentations with nutrient deficiencies.

There’s no point in pretending that the delicate mix of mysterious elements that come together to influence aroma and flavor are fully understood. The things that are known are just puzzle pieces. Part of wine’s charm is its ability to confound. It’s part of the fun, don’t you think?

*The aroma wheel does include methyl anthranilate, which is the compound that makes grape candy taste so very grapey. Wines made from native American grape varieties, such as Concord, are often described as “foxy,” which is code language for Welch’s Grape Juice character - methyl anthranilate.

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Comments

  • Snooth User: Winemaven
    45331 18

    "Many of the characteristics, especially those derived from fermentation and aging, are not well understood. Some enologists believe that we mistakenly identify sulfur compounds as “terroir” flavors, or mineral characteristics, when they may actually be the result of fermentations with nutrient deficiencies."

    Nice article. The myth of terroir like most conventional wisdom dies hard!
    Andrew Sharp in his "Wine Taster's Secrets" noted how "minerality" appears in many low alcohol, high acid white wines." Guess where these types of wines usually come from?

    Science has shown that isn't really limestone you are tasting in your wine and while no one has found those cats peeing into the founders or on the grape vines.....

    Terroir is terribly important. Just not in the ways many believe.

    Oct 03, 2012 at 12:23 PM


  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 5,777

    Very interesting article, and excellent comments, also, Winemaven.

    Oct 03, 2012 at 5:57 PM


  • Snooth User: jamessulis
    Hand of Snooth
    426220 1,496

    Facinating article, I've often wondered why wine smells so very different from other varietals and from other vineyards.

    Oct 04, 2012 at 12:08 PM


  • Thanks for the great comments and especially for your insights, Winemaven! Cheers!

    Oct 07, 2012 at 2:06 PM


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