From time to time I hear people talking about tasting a drip of fat of some animal, or the flavour of a particular fruit and even the silkiness of a milk product in a wine and I begin to wonder. Is it true that any of these or other extraneous products are added and made part of the wine-making process or are they merely metaphors? Am I being totally naive or a quintessential optimist in believing a bottle of wine contains nothing more than the carefully fermented grape?
Rest assured, those terms are indeed simply metaphors.
But you're not alone in wondering – and worrying. I get similar questions, and it's understandable given the way some of us wine geeks prattle on about wet stones, melted licorice and, yes, even bacon drippings. (What can I say? We're enthusiasts.) That's one of the intriguing things about wine; most of the time it doesn't taste like grapes, certainly not the way unfermented grape juice does. Fermentation, a complex transformation whereby yeast converts fruit sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, generates all sorts of wondrous nuances.
Virtually all quality wines are made purely from grapes and yeast. Usually, a tiny amount of sulphur is used in the winemaking process to sanitize barrels and prevent juice from oxidizing in the presence of air, which spoils wine. But the sulphur tends to blow off with a few swirls in the glass, if it's noticeable at all.
Flavour descriptors, such as animal fat, are figments of our (sometimes wild) imagination, not ingredients in the winemaking arsenal. In the case of animal fat, the nuance is especially prevalent in syrah, notably the fine examples from France's Rhône Valley. Stone-like flavour is a hallmark of Loire Valley sauvignon blanc, champagne and Chablis. And you'll find a suggestion of licorice in many southern French reds. German riesling often can faintly smell of gasoline – in a good way.
Think of food analogies. Often a well-ripened cheese can smell or taste nutty, vegetal or even pungently of dirty socks (choose your own metaphor). It sounds revolting to those who don't enjoy, say, a gloriously stinky Époisses from France, but these analogies make sense to those who are passionate about quality cheese.
One exception to the analogy rule is "toastiness." Most red wines are aged in oak barrels, and these vessels are almost always charred on the inside (using actual fire), which lends a toasty flavour to the wine. Oak also can impart vanilla accents, but, again, it's not the result of vanilla bean, just the oak. It would be a stretch to call oak an additive because everyone assumes most red wines are aged in barrels and inevitably acquire flavours from the wood.
Another, more glaring, exception is the Greek wine retsina, which does in fact contain an additive, pine resin, in keeping with an ancient tradition. But it's a niche product.
I hope you'll smell bacon in your next syrah; it will mean you've landed a good one.
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