There's always an element of the exciting and simultaneously the ominous whenever we discover something about the fundamental chemistry of wine. The flavors and aromas of wine are so complex that, like quantum mechanics and the secrets of dark matter, we are still puzzling out just exactly where they come from.
This week, apparently some scientists in Australia actually figured out why some red wines have a black pepper character. It's a nifty little compound called Rotundone -- or more accurately, its a series of unknown compounds that Rotundone seems to always be associated with. I guess we haven't figured out what those compounds are yet, but we have their calling card, and it's got a pretty nifty, almost Falstaffian name, doesn't it? When Rotundone is present, the wine tastes like pepper. When it's not, the wine doesn't. Simple as that.
Such findings always cut to the very heart of the philosophical and cultural context in which wine lives. Now that we know the role of this compound, it's only a matter of time before we figure out what to do in the grape growing or winemaking process in order to emphasize or de-emphasize its presence in a wine.
And if we do, what of it?
To some, such "manipulations" are anathema to the winemaking process. To others, such maneuvers are no different than deciding to pick your grapes a little earlier than most to emphasize a mineral quality to the wine.
The fact is, such scientific findings always run smack up against the brick wall of wine romanticism. People don't like thinking of winemaking as chemistry, despite the fact that it is very much so. The wine world lives in a strange dichotomy, where different wine lovers tend to draw very arbitrary and personal lines about just how much "science" they're willing to tolerate in their wine before it stops being wine, and starts being an engineered beverage. Hence the ominous nature of our increasing knowledge about why wine tastes like it does. The more we know, the less magic it seems.
I think most people would be surprised to know just how much science goes into their glass.
In any case, keep your nose peeled for Rotundone and its pack of aromatic friends, and enjoy those black pepper aromas with the smug satisfaction that you know a little more about where they come from.
Read the full story.
A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. 2015 Roederer Award Winner.Learn more.
I'll Drink to That: Nicoletta Bocca of San Fereolo Book Review: Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 5/8/16 I'll Drink to That: Tom Peters of Monk's Cafe Vinography Unboxed: Week of May 1, 2016 I'll Drink to That: Daniel Brunier of Vieux Télégraphe Vinography Images: Green Gold I'll Drink to That: Angelo Gaja of Gaja Winery Hungarian Wine: Hope, Dreams, Heritage and Progress Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 5/1/16
Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune