The Components That Contribute to a Wine’s Uniqueness

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GrapevineWith a bit of a COVID-lite window, I’m resuming the private wine tastings I conduct during the year.

For these events I offer my audience a sampling of several wines and pair them with individual foods. I then solicit input on the characteristics of each wine. Since each of our palates differs from the next person’s, I typically receive divergent comments on the aroma, bouquet and taste of a wine.

It makes perfect sense to consumers that wine may have aromas and flavors of agricultural products such as berries, cherries, chocolate, apples, melons, citrus fruits, even grass, but they become confused when their senses detect oak, butter, vanilla, caramel and/or toast. Even more confusing are the more esoteric elements of a wine: the “dryness” factor, which may impart an overall perceived quality of off-putting harshness in a wine, or conversely, a pleasing mellowness. 

These latter characteristics don’t seem natural to their senses. Broader terms that most consumers sense as “mouth-feel” run the gamut from “harsh” or “astringent” all the way to “supple” or “velvety.”

And their consternation is valid. Why is that? What creates these sensory perceptions? The major influences affecting a bottle of wine are grape varietal, terroir, yeast, aging vessel and the hand of the winemaker. Here is a short description of each.

  1. Varietal and terroir. These are the fixed portions of the building blocks of producing a wine. Each varietal has its own distinct characteristics of aroma and taste. The specific environment these grapes are grown in further influences the final product. Pinot Noir grapes grown in Europe will be different than those of the New World, in part because of the influences of the varying climates.
    Pinot Noir grapes grown in different regions of Europe have unique characteristics due to the differing soil and topography. Similarly, Pinot Noir grapes grown within the same region may have differing characteristics due to the microclimate and the subtle differences in soil from one vineyard to a neighboring vineyard.
    Grape tannins play a role as well. Polyphenols present in grape skins and seeds interact with grape juice and yeast during fermentation. White grapes contain minor levels; red grapes, varying levels. Nebbiolo (used in the production of Italian Barolos and Barbarescos) and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have harsher and more concentrated tannins than a Pinot Noir or Merlot, which have softer tannins. These tannic qualities are ever-present; the winemaker’s alchemy determines their ultimate influence on a wine.
  2. Yeast. Various strains may be added to grapes when they are crushed. This will typically accelerate the fermentation process of converting grape sugars to alcohol. There are numerous varieties of yeast preferred by winemakers. Each affects the resulting body, color and polyphenol level of a wine.
  3. Aging. The influence of aging – either in stainless steel or oak barrels – has a significant impact on a winemaker’s final product. And it’s not just the period of aging. The vessel, and the variable attributes of each vessel, arguably may have the greatest influence on the final product. Affected are the levels of tannins and the distinctive aromas detected in wine. (Much) more on this in next week’s column.

A winemaker’s preferences. Today’s winemaker is as much a technician as an artisan, directing the production of a wine throughout its evolutionary process. The aroma and taste of each wine may be impacted by a number of techniques a winemaker has at his or her discretion. By manipulating the other influencers on the finished product, he or she stamps their imprint of style and balance on a bottle of wine. Length of fermentation, type of yeast and aging techniques under the influence of an alchemist determine the attributes, and appeal, of a particular wine.

The next time you’re asked to opine on the aroma and taste of wine, you’ll be armed with the insights to seek out the unique characteristics of that wine. Perhaps you, too, will become a social “influencer” on behalf of a new favorite wine.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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