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The Double Edge of Wine Science

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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.