Facts in five: What's in your wine?

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 2, 2017

Swirling around in your wine glass is a flavorful—and fascinating—flurry of chemistry. From taste to aroma to color, the chemicals found in grapes and wine influence how your senses respond to every sip, sniff and pleasing hue.    

  1. Tartaric acid is a compound found at high concentrations in only a couple of fruits: grapes and tamarind. This chemical contributes to the sour flavor of wine and—because most microbes can’t metabolize it—helps keep the drink stable over time.
  2. Tannins earned their name because they “tan” things—literally. Not only found in wines, the chemicals bind to proteins, which is critical for turning rawhide into leather. They also bind to lubricating proteins in our mouths, resulting in the grippy, tannic feeling of full-bodied reds.
  3. Do some wines make your mouth hot? Ethanol triggers the same thermal receptors as hot jalapeño peppers.
  4. Wines, especially reds, get their color from anthocyanins. These chemicals are derived from a thin layer of cells just under the skin of the grape. While anthocyanins don’t stimulate taste buds, their presence does affect flavor—white wines dyed red are described as “fuller-bodied.”
  5. Wild grapes don’t make very good wines. Their acid concentration is typically four times higher than cultivated grapes, much closer to levels found in cranberries or even lemons. Plus, many wild grapes have strong vegetal aromas, like green peppers—great for salads, perhaps, but not ideal for wine.