Why is there chocolate in my wine?

Andre Eikmeier
By Andre Eikmeier
about 2 years ago
6 min read

Wine is awesome. The flavours, the textures, the layers, the weight, the heat, the twists and turns as it opens up inside your mouth and inside your mind. That is sexy stuff and I don’t care if it sounds wanky. It’s awesome. And it’s real, if you let it in. To really get it, you’ve got to understand compounds so strap yourself in because I’m gettin’ scientific on your ass (with a little help from Google).

My father and I started a business when I was 22 and fresh out of university. It was an agency for a German “raw fragrance” company. These fragrances go into anything with a “scent” added: shampoos, soaps, detergents, skin care products, perfumes. It’s actually an astonishing industry, the world of smells, and I was flown over there to study with the perfumers for a couple of weeks.

Perfumers are the rockstars of the fragrance world. With their finely-honed schnozzes, they can detect and dissect hundreds, if not thousands, of individual smells – woody base notes, floral middle notes, zesty top notes...the usual.

Did you know that your average perfume has over 200 different aromas that make up the final heady waft you get assaulted with when you wander across the ground floor of a department store? I learned this looking at a graph spat out by a machine as big as I was called a Gas Chromatograph. Basically, you stuck a product in it – perfume, fruit juice, whatever – and it showed you all the compounds that the product was made up of.

Why am I telling you this? Because wine, like perfume, is made up of aroma compounds – and they’re what give you the chocolate in your cabernet, the raspberries in your pinot and the grapefruit in your chardonnay.

I hear not only sceptical punters, but wine professionals too, scoffing at the notion. “It just smells like wine,” says the baffled punter, wondering what we’re all wanking on about as we spout references to exotic fruits and funky body odours. “They’re simply varietal characteristics,” insists the dull wine writer as the last fragments of mystique die inside his cold, analytical soul.

Well, it’s true. Wine does smell and taste like lots of fascinating stuff. And for me, this is what makes wine so extraordinary, so magical. It’s why I fell in vino love – that psychedelic tumble into the uncharted world of adventure that awaits inside glass of wine.

It’s important to remember that you don’t “taste” flavours. You smell them. A taste is a reaction, it’s your taste buds reacting with what’s in your mouth, and you can basically taste sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and that fifth moorish and mystical “umami”. Google it, it’s cool.

You can’t “taste” strawberries. You can taste the sweetness, but you smell the strawberries. You know how you can’t taste food when you’ve got a bad cold and your nose is all blocked up? There you go. Pinch your nose shut next time you eat something and you’ll see what I mean.

But you can smell strawberries, so what exactly are you smelling? Compounds. Let me take you back to high school chemistry for a moment. Remember the periodic table of elements? Hydrogen, Potassium, Gold, Uranium – 114 different pure chemical substances that the planet is made up of. 

Well, a compound is a collection of elements. You take these 114 elements and mix them up, string them together, and you get an almost infinite amount of fabulous things. Take two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, you get water. 

Take six parts carbon, five parts hydrogen, and a carbon-hydrogen-oxygen threesome, and you get a sexy little organic compound called Benzaldehyde, which is one of the 23 aromatic compounds found in a strawberry. You’ll also find 38 acid compounds, 37 alcohol compounds, 17 aldehydes, 14 ketones, 102 esters, not to mention the lactones, acetals, furans, sulphurs, terpenes and b-D-Glucopyranosides…

In fact, hundreds of compounds, all brought together in a cosmic cocktail that in the end makes a strawberry taste like a strawberry and not a banana. I never said it was simple. Mother Nature is a smart and sassy girl, and she’s very creative. 

Some of those compounds you find in a strawberry you’ll also find in a pinot grape and that’s why you can smell strawberries in pinot. Some of the compounds you find in chocolate are also formed when you ferment a cabernet grape and stick it in a barrel made of oak. That’s why cabernet can smell like chocolate. It’s not your imagination, it’s Mother Nature, and it’s very, very cool.

But why is wine so special? Because the wine grape (Vitis Vinifera) is a particularly clever little plant. It’s a survivor. It can dig deep for water and nutrients it needs, burrowing through limestone if needs be. It can grow up posts and wires to find the sun. It can also get its sexy on in a big way. The wine grapevine has evolved over time be a randy procreator, developing different flavoursome compounds to attracting insects to help them pollinate, and to attract birds to eat the berries and disperse the seeds. Horny little minx.

Taste a wine grape, as opposed to a table grape. Table grapes are rather homely by comparison and taste like grapes, while wine grapes do not taste like grapes. They taste like strawberries, and blackcurrants, and lemons and all sorts of intriguing and delicious things that are going to make their way through to the wine they are destined to grow into.

Other compounds are created during fermentation and even more come through the oak. And some of the really sexy “secondary” characters come as the wine ages, or rots, essentially. That “aromatic decay” brings in all those savoury aromas that make a wine a wine and not a fruit juice.

And yes, if you’re smelling leather in a wine it’s because you’re smelling a similar combination of compounds that you get when you skin a cow, cure and tan the leather and turn it into a brand new pair of rock and roll pants.

Blows your mind, huh? Welcome to the wine universe. It’s a wondrous place.