Leather in Your Wine?

You may have read about a wine, or checked the back label, or heard people speak of wines with flavors of apple, grapefruit, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.  Or, leather, tobacco, chocolate, and coffee. Or my all-time favorite, from the back label of a bottle of red wine, "fresh road tar."  

So, you may be asking yourself "Do they really put those things in my wine?"  The answer is simple -- No.  Wine is made from grapes and grapes alone.  But how can a wine have a flavor like leather?  Well, it comes from many things including the type of grape used to make the wine, the soil the grapes were grown in, and the type of vessel the wine is aged in.

The growing environment for wine grapes is often referred to as the 'terrior' (pronounced Te-war) which is a term describing the interaction of soil, climate, topography and grape variety in a specific site. The word is derived from the French word for earth, "terre."  As the grape grows on the vine, it is drawing up minerals from the soil that it's growing in. And, these minerals can give wines distinctive flavors.

Also, the type of vessel that wine is aged in can significantly contribute to additional flavors. French oak is used in both white wines and red wines. Along with the natural flavors that come from the wood, the oak barrels are 'toasted' by literally heating the inside of the barrel with an open flame to a generate the desired level of char on the wood.

In white wines, an oak barrel can impart flavors of vanilla, butterscotch, caramel or burnt sugar. In reds, the oak gives flavors of smoke, tobacco, leather and chocolate.  On the other hand, stainless steel tanks allow the fruit flavors to shine through without adding additional flavors that come along with oak barrels. And, concrete tanks are also being used. The concrete actually “breathes” much like oak, but leaves no flavor behind.

So, rest assured that your bottle of wine does not have leather, tobacco or fresh road tar added to it.  But, these subtile flavors that come from the grapes, the soils and the aging vessels certainly add wonderful nuances to a bottle of wine.  Cheers!