This was one of my first questions when I began tasting wines. Wine can be made from anything fermentable, especially other fruits. Most people who taste wine and do not yet have a developed palette are still able to discern maybe red or black fruit characteristics of a wine, even if they can’t narrow down the taste to strawberry or cherry, or plum versus blackberry. So why does a beverage made from grapes taste like other kinds of fruits and have all of these fantastically described aromas?
The basic formula for wine, or spirit is sugar + yeast = alcohol. The grapes from which most wines are made (Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Labrusca) are a unique fruit. Worldwide there are more than 5,000 different varietals (specific type of grape). They have an uncanny ability to absorb the elements (soil, water, air) of the environment where they grow (terroir, a conversation for another post) and have chemical compounds that in combination with esters produce tastes and aromas reminiscent of other fruits and essences because they have the same chemical composition. Flavors and aromas such as butter, toast, caramel, tar, cigar, and other odd non fruit or floral descriptors all refer to the influence oak can have in the winemaking process and are not part of the natural chemical compounds of the grape. Some common examples of how wines exhibit specific flavor profiles:
Cabernet Sauvignon has all kinds of dark fruit elements depending upon where it is grown
Chardonnay, associated with melon, pears, and peaches. Oaked Chards are described as buttery or fat.
Merlot, almost always get a type of cherry description
Sauvignon Blanc is often described as grassy or herbal
Syrah/Shiraz has dark berry fruits and an anise or liquorice component
Some wines do in fact taste “grapey”. This is not considered to be a desirable flavor descriptor for a wine. It is a reference to the wine being flabby or flat, and often due to fermentation of less than properly matured grapes. Also, the Vitis Labrusca grape, which is native to the Americas, is often described as grapey or foxy tasting and not associated with good quality wines. It does however make excellent jams, juices, and eating grapes, where, generally speaking, the Vitis Vinifera does not. Thomas Jefferson, a great horticulturist among his many talents saw the abundance of varietals that grew wild here in the U.S. and was bound and determined to make a drinkable wine that the world would praise. It never happened. All of the great West Coast wines are European imports that really liked the terroir there. East Coast wines are for the most part hybrids, and have not really come into their own yet in the wine world, with the exception of a few Finger Lakes wines in upstate New York.