So, do they put vanilla in this? I can't tell you how many times I've been asked this question, by friends and winery visitors alike. And while wine professionals sure do spew a lot about "flavors" and "aromas," it actually has nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with them.
Contrary to the way we make it sound, winemakers don't actually put lemons, strawberries, vanilla, leather or rubber tires in your wine. For the most part, it's just grape juice and yeast, and maybe exposure to an oak barrel.
So, what is all that cockamamie aroma talk all about? When we talk about flavors or aromas of wine, we are simply drawing a comparison to something we already recognize. You can imagine, as the grapes grow, ferment, and age, and do all that chemical-reaction stuff, the resulting wine becomes quite complex – to the extent our brains can't even comprehend all that's going on.
Luckily, thanks to elements in the soil, yeast present in fermentation, and the type of wood barrels used, the wine develops some similar chemical properties as things we already recognize, such as tanned leather, ripe cherries, and tobacco. So, if you picked out some recognizable vanilla undertones in your Chardonnay, the barrel likely contributed some vanillin, the same aromatic compound you find in vanilla.
The whole tasting-note business is really just a way of triggering our memory (which, turns out, lives next door to the smell detector up there in the ol' noggin). To make things simple – and memorable – we find similarities with past experiences or things we’ve already encountered.
And when I say all those wine descriptions have nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with the person writing it: As it turns out, no two people share the same exact sense of smell or taste – or the same experiences, for that matter. So wait a second… Yep! There is no right answer. What might smell like banana peel to me, may smell more like baked apples to you.
Want to build your memory bank? Not to sound cliche, but, seriously, stop and smell the roses. Take a moment to drink in different smells: from your morning coffee to the herbs that go on your pasta, from a mossy forest to the earth after it rains.
Happy drinking (and smelling).