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08.03.2007

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.

Read the full story.

Comments (9)

Homer S. wrote:
08.03.07 at 11:05 PM

Mmmm...Rotundonuts...yummmmm!

OrionSlayer wrote:
08.05.07 at 10:40 AM

I think knowing the science or chemistry of wine making just adds another layer of enjoyment to wine. Learning that a compound like "Rotundone" is associated with they pepperiness in some of the Zinfandels or Gruner Veltliners I enjoy is like watching Alton Brown on "Good Eats." He explains the chemistry behind cooking and I find it fascinating.

08.06.07 at 7:52 AM

Since this is just a pointer to indicate when the pepper qualities may be present, rather than the actual pepper compound itself, we don't have to worry about anyone adding it to wine any time soon. Rather it allows vineyard managers to select those vines which have more of the marker evident, if indeed they are after the pepper aromas and taste.

This particular discovery is less about chemistry, and more about genetics. Learning to determine the predisposition of a wine towards a particular flavor is a huge step, and one that will have amazing repercussions, but it is not as simple as adding an agent to wine and getting a pepper flavor. At least not yet.

Arthur wrote:
08.06.07 at 2:05 PM

I agree with you Stephen.

On the flipside of what you said, I would not be surprised if, in time, wine makers will learn how to manipulate Rotundone levels in wines just as they manage pyrazines in Cabernet (with oat flour). Then, if you want to make a less peppery wine, but the site, clone and vintage give you fruit with Rotundone levels not consistent with your plans for the wine, you might be able to manipulate them.

In the content of wine styles, this really is no different than choosing whether your whites will go through malolactic fermentation (and to what degree).

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
08.06.07 at 2:27 PM

The problem with viticultural and enological research is that the controled nature of the laboritories is the oposite of actual vineyards and wineries. The application of such results are years away from being practically useful to wineries of any size much less to the vast majority of wineries that tend to be smaller.
Stephan above eludes to identifying vines with the 'genes' to give rise to these flavoring agents. I would doubt that it is as simple as a vine having a given gene or not. I think the issue is likely to be more environmental; what is it about a vintage or place that gives rise to these compounds ( causes the products of these genes to be expressed ).
It is tempting to try to break wine down into its ever smaller parts and say what each piece contributes to the whole but as we look at wine as a dynamic system the pieces may play different roles as they interact with other pieces. Remember high school science and the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principal; it is impossible to know the exact velocity AND position of a particle at any given time. In wine this mean that as we focus on the elements of a wines composition we know less about who they interact to give rise to what we percieve.
Don't worry, putting a man on the moon was an infantile scientific feat compared to what it would take to 'understand' wine from a purely scientific stand point, the mystery and uncertainty are safe.
As for the Alton Brown analogy I would like to make this point. Cooking is all about controlling physical ( heat for example) and chemical ( say the effects of adding acid ) process. Winemaking ( as well as bread baking and cheese production ) is a physical and chemical process as well as a biological process. The addition of the less predictable nature of biological processes makes understanding wine much more difficult than understanding cookery. So wine is not just chemistry, it is also microbiology, botany, agrononmy etc as well. Again the mystery is still safe.

vinesci wrote:
08.06.07 at 9:38 PM

I would totally support Jerry D. Murray's from above. As somebody who's earning my daily bread trying to figure out what is it in the wine that we (that is, consumers, not scientists) particularly like, where it comes from, and what can we do in the vineyard and winery to enhance or get rid of it - I am only too aware that there will be no such thing as complete control over the sensorial composition of the product (wine) any time soon, if ever. There will always be a lot of room for romanticism (or unpredictability). That is not to say that alder's comments in the initial post are off the mark; there is an inverse relationship in the public's perception of the role of science in wine production and their romantic ideas surrounding wine. Opinions are very much divided as to what is the right balance between the two (ie, how much should we expose the average Joe and Jane to the role of science and technology in modern grape-growing and wine-making process). No doubt the role of science and technology is quite significant, but at some point it can work against the wine industry, scaring people away from the product seen as "unnatural" (the fact that the natural product of grape juice is vinegar doesn't seem to be able to catch with the audience).

wineguy wrote:
08.07.07 at 11:07 AM

Lane Tanner, a well-known maker of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noirs, is a former Pollution Control Scientist. She has long maintained that winemaking is just like pollution control: it's all about making stuff that smells and tastes bad smell and taste better.

razmaspaz wrote:
08.07.07 at 1:21 PM

I've always seen the wine consumer in 3 distinct market segments. There is the yellow tail drinker, and more broadly the mass market wine drinker. Then there is the wine lover/geek, and finally the cult wine collector.
This "advancement" applies squarely in the first group. This drinker wants the same wine every time, year to year. If you can consistently put a "peppery" quality in Blackstone wine bottle to bottle, year to year, you will deliver a quality product in the eyes of the "Yellow Tail Drinker".
This same ability will be seen as a detriment to the wine geek. The wine geek will look for uniqueness and a sense of terroir. I consider myself in this category, and I little interest in a wine that was conceived from the start to be peppery. I say, plant some vines, pick the grapes, and make the best wine you can while preserving hte unique character of the place, variety, and style of wine you grew.
The third group may see some benefit in this. Those seeking powerful, sexy, showoffy wines may pay a premium to have a wine fit a certain profile. I'm really not sure how this would play out in these circles. The ability to duplicate a trait doesn't inherently increase the cost of the wine, so it doesn't make it any more impressive to own.
I don't think it is possible to market to more than one of these segments at the same time, so I think it will be likely that wineries that mass market their wines will add these techniques to their toolbox, but that wineries looking to sell to the other segments will avoid them. They will seek a transparent winemaking process, and promote the quality of their grapes and vineyards over their cookie cutting skills.

Arthur wrote:
01.21.08 at 1:46 PM

wineguy:

I do believe that Lane is very more towards the non-interventionist end of the spectrum of wine makers. Could that be because she picks 2 weeks before anyone else and thus has a lot less to 'correct'?

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