A Cabernet with notes of cherry and hickory. A buttery Chardonnay. A smoky Syrah. Seriously, how can wines taste like all these things if they are made from grapes?

No, winemakers don’t add raspberry jam and chocolate syrup to their wines to get a desired flavor. Flavors begin in the vineyard. The amounts of sunshine and water, and the type of soil have much to do with a grape’s individual flavor, which is why a Viognier from France and one from California can taste completely different.

From the vineyards, wines (especially reds) make their way into barrels to age. This is where a wine’s characteristics really begin to develop. That vanilla you sense in your glass of Meritage? It comes from the vanillic acid found in oak. That butter you sense in your Chardonnay? That came from the presence of diacetyl, a byproduct of secondary fermentation. Have you ever sensed leather, yes leather, in your Merlot? Tannins caused that.

The list goes on and on: caramel, strawberry, citrus, grass, tar…are some of the flavors that make wines so interesting and fun to drink. While sniffing, twirling, sloshing are all part of the art of wine tasting, don’t take it too seriously, because in the end it’s all subjective. The next time you read a wine label and it says your Zinfandel should taste like blackberries, but you taste blueberry, don’t panic. Keep sipping and enjoying. After all, if you like it, it’s good wine.

–Erica M

What is the most unusual flavor you’ve tasted in a wine?