So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: What are some interesting facts about wine that you haven’t discussed before?
We asked this question to be answered by someone who makes wine for a living. This is his response.
I make wine for a living. I could go on for hours about the bullsh*t propagated by sommeliers, but I will get to that in a while.
There are really a very finite set of flavors you can taste in wine. Part of this is, of course trained expectation, but there is concrete scientific support for these flavors as well. For example, when we make artificial vanilla extract, it more or less tastes like real vanilla. This is because they synthesize a compound called vanillin, which makes up the majority of the “vanilla flavor” you get if you eat an actual vanilla bean. In spite of this, there are over 300 flavor compounds identified that contribute to the flavor of natural vanilla. This same principle is true for most of the flavors you know. In wine you have an enormously complex system of bacteria and yeast that manipulate the chemicals (think naturally occurring grape constituents) in grapes. During this process they will often produce compounds we are familiar with, such as key flavor compounds in fruits. Because of this, we can say we taste citrus, or tropical fruit (banana, pineapple, mango etc.). This is further substantiated by something called Mass Spectrometry. This is basically a fancy instrument that can tell us what chemical compounds are in a solution (in this case wine).
I encourage you to buy a Sauvignon Blanc at the grocery (it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but preferably something in a regular wine bottle) and sit down with a WINE glass. Concentrate, and see if you can identify citrus flavors. This is often the easiest place to start, and I can almost assure you, you will be successful! I will not attempt to refute the claim that brand perception heavily influences the perception of wine quality, but one could make this claim for virtually every product in the marketplace today.
The studies that showed sommeliers were unable to identify red vs. white wine, were somewhat flawed. That being said, I think this underscores the human mind’s susceptibility to suggestion. You can read quite a bit about the implications of these studies with a few Google searches if you are interested.
Finally, the notion that pesticides do not influence flavor is not true. I highly encourage you to find a so called “natural wine.” These have not been treated with sulfur, and as a result the natural bacteria (and to a much lesser extent, yeast) are allowed to ferment the grape juice unchecked. This often produces a very sour and unpleasant wine. Conversely, if you were able to find a vineyard that was treated with sulfur right before harvest, you would find this impacted the flavor in a very very bad way. Oversulfured wine is hard to describe, but just try to imagine eating a rancid egg. You will never find this for sale, as we are required to report our sulfur levels, and wine with a high enough sulfur level to taste like this would never make it to market. On a much less extreme note, there is a movement away from using moderate levels of sulfur, as we believe it may mute the delicate flavors of the wine, by killing the bacteria essential in producing the flavor compounds you recognize as citrus etc.
Now about the bullsh*t propagated by sommeliers. There are four levels. The first level is a multiple choice test with over a 90% pass rate. So, not exactly a rigorous test of knowledge. The second level is slightly more in depth, and adds a requirement that you taste and identify a few wines. If you have seen SOMM, it’s nothing like that. We are talking generalities e.g., this is a white wine, sweet, doesn’t have a lot of fruit so it is from Europe, it tastes like reisling so it’s probably from Germany, and hey I had to memorize that one region in Germany during class, so I bet it’s from that region. It really isn’t rocket science. Levels 3 and 4 are significantly more difficult. I respect the hell out of the advanced (3) and master (4) somms. They have dedicated their whole lives to the study of wines, and they objectively know a ton! Over 200 people have ever become level 4s. It is absurdly difficult.
The main issue is much of their knowledge is bullsh*t. They believe in something called terroir (tear-waa). This is A concept propagated by the French to explain why their wine is superior to other regions’ wines. Essentially the concept boils down to climate, soil, and magic (I sh*t you not). No one will argue soil and climate are important factors, but many other regions of the world have very similar climate and soil to France. So they claim some undefined quality exists only in certain regions that allows these regions to produce wine of a superior quality. The job of a sommelier is to memorize these regions, and identify wines from these regions. To some extent this is very simple. I could teach you in an hour to reliably distinguish French Cabernet from Napa Cabernet. But the extremes they take this system to, have no basis in scientific reality.
I am a biologist by training. Before I made wine I studied large groups of different species living in a single location. (Think all the different bacteria you have in your gut). Coming from this background, there is a very simple solution to the magic property of each region. The bacteria/yeast in the soil and in the air. Some recent studies have started to lend credence to this idea. The problem with this, is that means France etc. are no longer super special wine regions. We could take the bacteria and yeast from these regions, and mimic their effects in other regions to produce wines indistinguishable from authentic French wine. Somms are reticent to accept that their magical terroir is simply some bacteria and yeast. As a result they have vehemently opposed this idea, in spite of mounting scientific evidence.
These are the climate change deniers of the wine world! On a slightly more personal note, I despise the somm certification program, because to become a level 4 somm you literally do not have to know how wine is made. I’m not talking detailed description either. There is not a single question at any level of certification that asks about the process of wine making. They don’t need to know about sulfites or the chemical constituents of wine. Yet they are self proclaimed experts. I often pour my wine for somms looking to add wines to their restaurant menus. I invariably get asked some amazing questions, though my favorite will always be when a somm didn’t know how grapes were picked! We made the mistake of taking a group out into the field to talk about harvest, and to let them pick some grapes to get a feel for the process. They literally didn’t understand that we had to walk to each cluster and cut it off (machine harvesting is not used for high end wines. Ever.) I am still not sure how they thought we harvested the grapes. Maybe through the magic of terroir?