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Perceptions of Taste in Wine

History tells us that wine was first made in Persia some 6,000 years ago. It is believed that one of the king’s wives thought it was poison and drank it to commit suicide. Instead, she laughed and sang and danced around the room. I doubt she really cared how it tasted, but I wish to thank her for her efforts as wine became a magic elixir that followed humans through the millennia.  At least for me, it is the perceptions of taste and smell that make wine a magical elixir. How can one beverage deliver so many different flavors and aromas? OK, fine, it is not magic, it is chemistry. But I sucked at chemistry, so to me, it’s magic.

For the purposes of this post, when I speak of wine, I assume that the wine is made from the grape species Vitis vinifera. This is the most common species of grape used to make wine throughout the world.

Perceptions of Taste

Why Does My Red Wine Taste Like Cherries, Blackberries, and Chocolate?


My White Wine Like Lemon, Peach, and Beeswax?

Note: The examples above in the header are just illustrative and do not refer to any specific wines. My point here is that when you read about the way wine tastes, you often hear mention of other fruits. The logical question is, shouldn’t wine made with grapes taste like grapes?Perceptions of Taste

Ah, that is a complicated question that I will try and break down as simply as possible. Grape juice tastes like grapes, but when grape juice is fermented (when yeast – either wild or commercial –  convert the sugars in grape juice into alcohol), the process also unlocks a range of chemical compounds that are also found in other fruits and foods. These compounds (esters, terpenes, thiols, etc.) affect the way the wine will taste. The more chemical compounds released during the fermentation process, the more complex the flavors and aromas will become. This is HUGE. The fermentation process creates the same flavor-inducing compounds that are in cherries, or blackberries, or plums, etc. in some red wines and apple, peach, or pear in white wine.

Spending time in oak barrels also adds flavors and aromas.

These flavors may come from the origin of the oak-type (French, American, Hungarian), the level of toasting on the inside of the barrel, the number of times a barrel has been used, etc.. They all affect aromas and flavors. Some of these flavors from oak may include vanilla, caramel, cedar, baking spice, black pepper, etc.

Photo Courtesy of Boris Tarnopolskiy on Unsplash

Of course, your personal olfactory and gustatory (O/G) memory play a significant part in this process as well. If you have never smelled/tasted a strawberry, there is no way for you to correlate that smell or taste in your wine. We also eat/drink with our eyes even before we smell or taste it, so your visual memory is again playing a pivotal role.

Perceptions of Taste

Why Does My White Wine Taste “Sweet” When It Is Bone-Dry?

I recently conducted a virtual wine tasting that included four wine wines that were all bone dry.  Several tasters thought that the wines were “sweet” and therefore did not like the wine. The wines were not sweet, technically speaking. And as a matter of fact, they all had 0% residual sugar remaining, which defines them as “bone dry.” So what were these tasters smelling and tasting that caused them to think “sweet” instead of bone-dry?

Perceptions of Taste – A Side Note:

Understanding Fermentation

So You Understand Sweetness in Wine

The process of making wine is all about fermentation. Grape juice has sugar. When yeast is introduced to the juice under the right conditions, the living yeast eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol. The fermentation process stops when there is no more sugar to convert (0% residual sugar per liter), or the winemaker stops the fermentation on purpose, leaving some sugar in the wine and thus produce a sweet or sweeter wine.

In Sparkling wine, there are seven different named levels of sweetness in wines. In still wine, there are five. And each one correlates to the amount of sugar remaining once the fermentation has stopped.

This wine is between Dry and Off-Dry

Bone dry is the classification for any still wine with zero grams (or less than one gram) per liter of residual sugar remaining after fermentation. Below is the classification for sweetness in still wine:

Bone-Dry  – 0-1 g/l Residual Sugar – 0-0.6 carbohydrates
Dry  – 0 – 17 g/l Residual Sugar – 0-10 carbohydrates
Off-Dry  – 17-35 g/l Residual Sugar – 10-20 carbohydrates
Medium-Sweet 35- 120 g/l Residual Sugar – 20-70 carbohydrates
Sweet 120+ g/l Residual Sugar – 70+ carbohydrates

Perceptions of Taste

So Wine Is Bone-Dry – Yet For Some Its “Sweet” – Why?

OK, this is where your O/G memories come into play, as it relates to the chemical compounds created during fermentation that I first discussed. But the bottom line is your O/G memories are playing games with you. 

There are four different reasons that one may perceive “sweet” in a bone-dry and dry wine. These reasons come from your very personal O/G memories resulting in how you perceive the flavors derived from the oak, fruit, acidity, and the alcohol level. And more than likely, it is a combination of some or all four categories of folks’ perceptions of taste.

Reason One – Acidity: All wines have some level of acidity. To some, wine with a lower acid level may be perceived as sweet.

Reason Two – Fruit or, more specifically, the ripeness of the fruit compounds you taste: Tropical fruits tend to be eaten when they are quite ripe (lots of sugar). Thus if you taste ripe pineapple or papaya in white wine, your O/G memories may fool you into thinking “sweet.”  Other fruits like lemon or lime taste sour or tart; therefore, “sweet” is nowhere in your memory bank.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Reason Three – Alcohol Level: This one is a bit tough for me to grasp, but higher alcohol in wine can cause one to perceive “sweet.” I do not think that is me because I tend to get the opposite reaction. I perceive bitterness, which is the other end of the spectrum as it pertains to alcohol perception in beverages. 

This is considered a low alcohol wine.

Reason Four – Oak: Some of the flavors that oak may impart into wine include several spice flavors that can trigger a sweet response because those spices are associated with a cookie, cake, or another baked dessert.Perceptions of Taste


Perceptions of Taste

What Kind Of Taster Are You?

Perception of Taste
Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

Genetically we are all gifted with tastebuds. Some of us have more than others. Tasters fall into three major categories: Nonsensative, Average and Hypersensitive Tasters. Depending on where you fall in the spectrum will undoubtedly play a part in how well you can taste. Combine that with an adventurous palate, and your O/G memory may give you the gift of experiencing all sorts of flavors in wine.

Back To My Tasting

Getting back to my tasting, I think it was the tropical and floral notes in the wines we tasted that made some folks perceive those wines as sweet.


Well, folks, that is all for now. Here is to tasting lots of wine and finding those that match your palate.


Rick & Gary

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