How Does Wine Get Its Flavor?

There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to wine. Preferring white over red (or vice versa) is only the beginning of the discussion. Some people favor a buttery chardonnay while others opt for a crisp sauvignon blanc or a serviceable pinot gris to accompany a meal of pasta, fish or poultry. If you’re into reds, would you rather have a mellow cabernet sauvignon, an earthy pinot noir or a bold shiraz to accompany your steak? The choice you make may depend not only on your preferences but on what you’re planning to eat, as wine can elevate the pleasure of food.

What determines the taste of wine itself? It starts with the type of grape from which the wine is made — and whether one type of grape is used or a blend. (This also influences the color of the wine as well as how much sugar, acid and tannins it contains.) The area’s climate where the grapes were grown affects the berries — as does the amount of water, sunlight and warmth they receive while they are growing. In general, cooler climates tend to produce lighter-bodied wines with less alcohol and more acidity than warmer ones. Certain grapes such as pinot noir and sauvignon blanc grow better in cool or moderate climates. Others such as cabernet sauvignon require more heat to ripen completely.

While wine begins with the grapes, the way it is produced has a tremendous impact on its taste. For example, an “oaky” chardonnay is typically a reflection of wine being produced in oak barrels. The maceration of red wines also impacts their flavor. Grapes are crushed to release most of their juice. Then, the skins, seeds and stems are left to soak with the juice for a period. The longer they soak, the more flavor, pigment and tannins are released, which will affect the wine’s flavor. Cold-soaking is another technique that mixes freshly crushed grapes in water and sulfur dioxide, producing less tannin than with traditional maceration.

Making wine is sometimes said to be part art and part science. Every winemaker brings a different approach to the process. The accompanying resource describes some of the methods that can be used to produce wine that’s delicious by itself and paired with food.

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