What you taste and enjoy is a result of what your high school teacher was trying to get you to understand
If you remember anything from your high school science classes, your teacher spent time instructing you on the two main transformations that happen in our world. Things either undergo a physical change or a chemical change.
Both processes happen to wine. There’s an amazing amount of science that occurs in the gorgeous glass of wine you’ll enjoy this evening. Here are a few highlights.
Temperature: Physical Change
We usually only think of temperature when preparing to drink wine. We want our white wine chilled, and our red wine at room temperature. From a science standpoint, during the fermentation process, the actual temperature of the wine is less critical than the stability of the temperature.
The optimal storage temperature of wine is about 55 degrees. Any fluctuation will cause the wine to contract or expand. The glass bottle is a constant, but expansion or contraction of the wine due to temperature fluctuation increases or decreases the pressure in the bottle.
The cork doesn’t make a completely airtight seal. The expansion will force some of the wine’s bouquet to escape through the cork. Contraction pulls a slight vacuum, pulling air through the cork and causing oxidation. This is what can ruin the wine. A certain amount of oxidation is what mellows wine, but too much oxygen pulled into a wine bottle because of fluctuating temperatures will destroy the wine.
There is science behind the serving temperature of the wine, as well. Chilling wine helps to accentuate its acidity. White wines tend to have acidic flavors, so chilling it helps to present the character. Chilling a wine promotes the flavor contributions of tannins. These are in the seeds and skins of grapes, and red wines often are crushed with both. A chilled red wine becomes less appetizing because of this.
Fermentation: Chemical Change
Yeast eats the natural sugars in grapes during the fermentation process. The result is carbon dioxide, alcohol, and more than 200 aromatic esters. The combination of these three things is what gives each wine its unique characteristic and flavor.
Those esters are extremely important. Each has a unique and familiar taste and feel on our tongue, and our brains create associations with them. It’s why when you smell an onion you can easily recall its taste and texture.
You’ll often hear how a white wine has a note of green apple, or a red wine has a note of tobacco. Many of those 200-plus esters in wine have previously-established associations. The aroma or taste of wine triggers that alternate association.
All of this takes place as the wine ferments. Sometimes this begins in oak barrels or even large stainless-steel vats. It continues after the wine is bottled.
Terroir: Physical and Chemical Changes
Wine made of grapes from a particular place will possess the characteristics associated with the physical environment where the grapes were grown. It’s why most wine stores sort what they sell by region.
There’s more than geography making up a wine’s characteristic. Additional factors include weather and rainfall, as well as soil conditions and other factors that have a physical impact on the grape vines and the fruit they produce.
Collectively, this is known as “terroir.” It causes a great amount of debate, mainly because there’s little agreement on exactly how much these physical things impact what you end up tasting when you drink wine. Some winegrowers have begun to use the concept of terroir—specifically the impact of rain—to apply stress to a crop by limiting irrigation. Their hope is to increase the production of aromatics in the grapes, which should manifest as a deeper body in the wine.
Something no one debates is the science-based impact that climate has on grapes that become wine. Climate impacts grapes the same way it does any harvested produce. A warmer temperature will produce a riper fruit.
When grapes ripen, the amount of sugar they produce will increase. We will perceive it to be less acidic when we drink the wine made from these grapes. So, you’d think that wines produced from grapes grown in warmer climates would produce sweeter wines.
This turns out not to be the case—and it takes us back to a chemical change. When these grapes with higher sugar content begin to ferment, the yeast has more sugar to consume. The result is a wine that’s higher in alcohol, with a less acidic taste. And, it’s why white wines tend to have a higher alcohol content than red wines.
Science continues to happen in your glass
It’s estimated that a glass of wine can contain thousands of different chemical compounds. They’ll continue to interact and cause changes as the wine is exposed to the air and its temperature changes. Even the shape of the glass can affect what you taste and smell. This is especially the case with bubbly wines. They release unique aromatic chemical compounds when their bubbles burst.
Fluctuations in the concentration of these chemical compounds can make noticeable changes, too. Science has identified one compound known as 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine. Isolated, it tastes like green bell peppers. You definitely would not like a wine if this particular chemical compound was too pronounced. Grapes grown in full sun have been found to produce less of this compound.
If you know even just a little bit about wine, you’ve come across the concept of tannins. Your brain may have even made an association with the bitter edge you taste from over-brewed tea. People often say that red wines with a high tannin content make their mouthfeel drier after they’ve taken a sip.
Science can explain this. Tannins bind to the proteins in your saliva. We appreciate tannins in our wine because they help to give the wine a long aftertaste. We wouldn’t appreciate it if the tannin level is too high, though. Scientists theorize that grapes developed tannins in the skin and seeds as an evolutionary tactic to prevent animals from eating the fruit.
We usually think that an amazing glass of wine is due to the artistry of the winemaker. He or she is actually more of a scientist. They leave art up to whoever has been hired to create the label.
Let’s talk actual temperatures
Wine doesn’t have to be complicated. There’s nothing wrong with picking up a bottle at a store (or local winery), going home, opening that sucker up, and pouring yourself a glass. In fact, that sounds pretty right to us. But there are various things you can do to get the most out of your wine. Choosing the right type of glass, for example, can make a big difference. Another important aspect to think about is temperature.
Why does temperature matter for wine?
Wine is fascinating. Unlike most beverages, one bottle of wine can have numerous flavors, some that are obvious and others that are aren’t. When wine is served at the right temperature, this allows you to experience all of those subtleties. If it’s too warm or too cold, you won’t get the best flavor.
Should all wines be chilled?
Not necessarily. Whites and sparkling wine are better when chilled. Reds, on the other hand, shouldn’t be too cold. It’s often said that they should be served at room temperature, but there’s a bit of a misconception when it comes to what that means. We’ll get to that.
Your wine temperature guide
Sparkling wine and champagne
If you are having a party or some kind of celebration and you’ll have some bubbly on hand, you’ll want to make sure it is cold – between 40 and 50 degrees. In addition to giving you the best flavor, this will keep the bubbles fine and not foamy. Sticking it in the fridge for about an hour before you open it should do the trick. And once opened, keep those bottles on ice.
White wine and rosé
Any white or rosé should also be cold, but not quite as cold. Between 50 and 60 degrees is best. A half hour to about 45 minutes in the fridge should get that bottle down to the perfect temperature. But unlike champagne, don’t keep the bottle on the ice after it is opened. As it warms up, you will begin to notice – and appreciate – slight changes to its aroma and flavors.
Okay, here’s where the whole “room temperature” things comes into play. Red wine is best when it is served between 60 and 70 degrees. If you usually keep your home in that temperature range, room temperature is fine. But if it’s a chilly night and you’ve got the heat cranked up or a fire going, odds are good that you’re way over that 70 mark. The same is true during summer months. Just sticking your bottle of red wine in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes can get it to that optimal temperature. And when it’s open – just like with a white wine – let it sit where it is.
What about storage?
Clearly, cooler is better when it comes to wine. The best temperatures for storage are between 45 and 65 degrees, with 55 being ideal. And while your fridge is okay for a few months, any longer and your wine will probably suffer. This is because the temperature will probably fall below 45. The lack of moisture may also dry out the corks, allowing air to seep in. For long-term storage, your best bet may actually be your basement.
Want to stop reading about wine and start drinking it? Come on down to Orange Coast Winery. No matter which type of wine you’re in the mood for, we’re ready to pour you a glass that’s the perfect temperature.
How aeration devices can enhance the flavor of wine
Aerating wine is a process that means exposing it to oxygen, which can greatly affect the taste. “Wines, particularly red, often benefit from a little aeration to allow the fruit to shine through and the flavors to mellow out,” according to TheKitchn.com.
What does aerating wine do to enhance the flavor?
NorCal Wine lists four main reasons to aerate wine, and they all have to do with enhancing or improving its flavor:
How do you aerate wine?
There are several ways to aerate wine. The first and easiest is to open the bottle a few hours before you drink it. However, you may not have time to let a wine sit that long.
The next easiest method is to pour the wine into a glass and swirl it around. You’ve probably seen this done at wine tastings and wondered about its purpose. “Swirling both aerates the wine and volatizes it, releasing more aromatic molecules into the air,” according to NorCal Wine.
The third way to aerate wine is to pour it from the bottle into a decanter. Decanters have a wide bottom so the wine is exposed to more oxygen, and thus, this method works faster than just swirling wine in a glass. It’s best to use a funnel that allows the wine to run in sheets down the inside wall, rather than pouring it directly into the bottom.
The final method for aerating wine involves devices that can speed up the process for those who might be in a hurry or who don’t have time to let a wine “breathe” before serving.
Types of wine aerators and what they do.
There are three main types of devices that can speed up the process of aeration.
Handheld – These devices are held over a glass and the wine is poured through them. Handheld devices include the Vinturi Line. “They will typically come with a screen, a base for the aerator, and also a stand. They allow a large amount of air to get to the wine in a very short amount of time,” according to Wine Enthusiast.
In Bottle/Stopper – These devices fit right inside the bottle. They are the most convenient because they can also be used as a stopper once a bottle is opened. This type includes the Rabbit Aerating Pourer, Wine Twister, and VinOAir.
In-Glass/Decanter – This last type of aerator sits in the spout of a decanter or the glass. “This style is similar to the handheld version but requires a little less work. Vinturi can be used in this fashion as it will fit atop most decanters, allowing for double aeration,” according to Wine Enthusiast.
Why should you consider buying a wine aerator?
According to TheKitchn.com, “The oxidation that occurs as the wine passes through the aerator helps soften flavors and releases aromas in the wine, thereby bringing it to its full potential.”
If you are pressed for time, you won’t have to let the wine sit in a decanter; you’ll be able to enjoy wine immediately. “It will often have the same positive impact on the flavor of wine as letting it breathe for 30 minutes in a decanter,” according to TheKitchn.com.
You can also aerate the wine by the glass, so if you don’t need the whole bottle, only pour the amount you want. Wine aerators may even make a cheaper bottle of wine taste twice as expensive since they do such a good job of enhancing the flavor and aromas.
A wine aerator is a good tool to have in your wine-drinking arsenal. Use one to get oxygen into the wine when you’re in a hurry, or to simply to enhance the natural flavor and aroma.
It often improves the taste, but uncorking a bottle and letting it sit undisturbed for a while doesn’t accomplish your goal.
Have you ever wondered about this? It’s sort of like the advice of not going swimming right after you eat. It doesn’t make much sense at all, considering we often do strenuous things right after we eat—yet there’s something in the back of our mind that says, “What if it’s true?”
We’re going to apply some obvious common sense to this subject right at the start, and then we’ll get into what you really need to know about allowing wine to breathe.
You uncork a bottle of red wine and set it back down on the counter. There it sits, undisturbed, for 20 minutes or so. It’s breathing, right? Actually, it’s not.
Barely any of the wine has come into contact with air if all you did was uncork it. It’s for this reason that you also shouldn’t worry too much about recorking a bottle of wine that you don’t finish a bottle of wine. It’ll generally stay in the same drinkable condition for a couple of days after you open it—because very little of it is ever exposed to air.
There you go. That’s pretty much all you need to know about what does not happen when most people think they are allowing a bottle of wine to breathe.
Allowing a wine to breathe
Exposing wine to air for a short time allows it to oxidize. This process—known as oxidation—helps to soften the flavors and releases its aromas. Most red and white wines will improve when exposed to air for at least 30 minutes. The improvement, however, requires exposure to far more than the teaspoon or so exposed by simply uncorking the wine.
To accomplish this, you have to decant the wine. This process aerates the wine in its entirety.
You want the wine—all of it—to breathe or be exposed to air. This is the way to do it. Decanting wine serves a dual purpose. You’ll aerate the wine, and you’ll separate it from any sediment that may have formed during its production and aging.
White wines rarely produce sediment, but older reds and vintage ports continue to produce it as they age. It’s caused as color pigments and tannins bond together and drops to the bottom of the bottle. Stirred up, those sediments can insert a bitter flavor and gritty texture to the wine. They will also cloud the wine’s appearance.
Decanting a wine is a fancy way of saying you’re pouring it from the bottle into another vessel. As you pour the wine slowly but steadily from the bottle to a new vessel—say, a carafe—you’ll expose it to air and separate the sediment from the wine you’ll end up drinking.
It’s a gentle process, and you’ll likely sacrifice only about an ounce of the wine that’s filled with sediment. The magic will start to happen now that you’ve exposed the entire bottle of wine to air.
Young red wines can be high in tannins. This is especially true of Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, and Red Zinfandel varieties. Aeration exposes the tannins to oxidation, which softens their mild bitterness. White wines don’t have tannins, so decanting them isn’t really necessary.
So, the whole “uncork it and let it breathe” thing isn’t doing too much. It doesn’t accomplish what you want. Decanting, on the other hand, is definitely much more effort than uncorking a bottle and setting it back down on the counter for 20 minutes. Is there a middle ground?
You can accomplish much of the same benefits of decanting by pouring the wine into your glass and gently swirling it each time before you take another sip.