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A Matter of Taste

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As the southern Oregon wine industry brings new wines to the table, a wine chemist explores the nuances of taste and aroma.

The description reads like poetry. Full, rich, deep, and powerful. Brimming with black cherry and vanilla flavors. Smokey undertones of pepper and spice.

We pour the wine, swirl it in the glass, giving it air, letting it breathe. We sip. Across the table I watch others as they smile and nod to one another. But I sense no cherry vanilla, just a sensation of hot, sour grapes and a desire to go drink some water. Despite having been poured from the same bottle, I seem to be drinking a different wine.

Taste is a tricky sense. It changes as we age, as our perceptions of food and drink shift, and as our experience broadens. With wine, the subjective nature of taste complicates how it is rated, how it is sold, and how it is served.

We are in a small conference room at the back of Oregon State University Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, where 80 empty wine glasses sit on a veneer covered table. Around the table are representatives from southern Oregon’s burgeoning wine industry, employees from nearby tasting rooms, and local vineyard owners.

James Kennedy. Photo by Dennis Wolverton.

James Kennedy, a wine chemist at OSU, pours a flask of wine that he will freeze-dry to a powder to analyze the elusive chemistry of taste and aroma. Photo: Dennis Wolverton

Last year, OSU applied for and received a license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission in order to host a class such as this, which is part wine tasting and part Viticulture Education 101. The training focuses on sensory evaluation as a way to help wineries educate their tasting room employees about the wines they are pouring.

“Wineries are hiring people who may have a passion for wine but know very little about the different characteristics of the wine, or how to talk with the public about what they are tasting,” said Phil VanBuskirk, the superintendent of the research and extension center. “Sensory evaluation techniques can provide participants with the language to talk about what they and others experience in a particular wine.”

At the head of the table, Kim Fallon glances around the table, making certain each participant has five glasses. Fallon is an enologist—a scientist who studies the making of wine. She gives the nod to begin pouring. Around the room the glasses fill with the dark red color of the Spanish varietals. The fifth glass holds a secret ringer, a wine with a higher price tag and heftier reputation that she hopes will both challenge and delight the group.

Vineyard. Photo by Steve Dodrill.

The Rogue River Valley is part of Oregon’s newest wine country, where warm-climate Merlots and Cabernets are replacing pear orchards, once a signature of the southern Oregon landscape. Photo: Steve Dodrill

The class uses a standardized blind tasting procedure to focus participants’ attention on the taste of the wine, not the label on the bottle. This technique develops the senses and heightens awareness and enjoyment of wine, said VanBuskirk, and the experience builds confidence and discrimination that increase with time.

Fallon discusses the history of each wine, the cultivation techniques used in the region’s vineyards, and the characteristics of the grapes, before inviting the class to pick up their glasses. The room falls silent as people get acquainted with the glasses in front of them. They sniff, swirl, stare, and finally sip from each. Then they do it again. And again.

After ten minutes, Fallon gathers the class’s attention to begin rating the wines and discussing what they liked or didn’t like about each wine. When the wines are unveiled, the ringer has placed highest; but surprisingly the least expensive wine is a close second.

“Why do we like this wine?” Fallon asks. “What makes a bottle of $10.99 wine stand out from its competitors?”

VanBuskirk & growers. Photo by Vaughn Walton.

Phil VanBuskirk (right), superintendent at OSU Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, visits with growers during the “Vineyard Problem Tour” in Oregon’s fastest growing wine region. Photo: Vaughn Walton

Wine is judged by its color, taste, aroma, and texture. One trait shouldn’t dominate the others, but all should work in harmony to create a perfectly balanced glass, said Jim Kennedy, an OSU food scientist who has spent the last decade studying the texture of red wines, specifically Oregon’s signature Pinot noir. To hear him talk about velvety textures and clean long-lasting finishes, how a wine feels in your mouth, is to envision small vineyards shining golden in the sun and quiet dinners shared at outdoor cafes. His work on the chemistry behind wine texture is leading the industry.

The foundation of good wine texture comes from tannins, a class of organic compounds that react with proteins and other chemicals to round out red wines and give them a feeling of weight in the mouth. Tannins come from the seeds and skin of grapes and are also present in other plant material including some woods and fruits. Oak barrels, sometimes used to store and age wine, may be an additional source of tannins.

Winetasting. Photo by Steve Dodrill.

The Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center hosts wine tasting classes for new vineyard owners and winery employees so they can learn the nuanced language of wine to share with their customers. Photo: Steve Dodrill

“Wine texture is all about how the wine feels in your mouth; you don’t want to have anything sticking out,” said Kennedy. “Pinots have some amazing tannins that result in some phenomenal wines. But an unbalanced tannin can make a horribly bitter wine.”

Tannins are astringent, but their level of bitterness is tempered by the ripeness of the grapes at the time of processing. Determining ripeness is not easy, however, and many promising vineyards have had a year’s worth of wine ruined by ripe grapes with unripe tannins not yet ready to come off the vine.

“Oregon wine is an industry still in its youth,” said Kennedy, who works with numerous winemakers and vineyards across the state from his position in OSU Department of Food Science and Technology. “Our reputation is still being formed, and one bad bottle can turn someone off to all Oregon wines.”

Kennedy’s current research examines how different growing conditions, including available sunlight and water, influence the vigor of the vines, the composition of the grapes, and the ultimate taste of the wine. His results will help form a set of tools Oregon growers can use in the vineyard to ensure quality wine texture in the bottle.

James Kennedy. Photo by Dennis Wolverton.

OSU’s James Kennedy is nationally known for his work deciphering the subtle chemistry that transforms a simple grape juice into an evolving synthesis of sunshine, soil, time, and the winemaker’s touch. Photo: Dennis Wolverton

“It’s tough doing science in the wine industry because wine is art and art is wine,” said Kennedy. “We have to focus on producing consistently awesome fruit, because if you don’t have good fruit, you won’t have good wine.”

The first vineyards in southern Oregon were planted in the late 1800s and lasted until the 1940s. Interest in regional viticulture picked up again in the mid 1960s when OSU put in about an acre of experimental wine grapes at the southern Oregon site.

Today, there are more than 100 wine grape growers in Jackson, Josephine, and Douglas counties, responsible for 19 percent of the state’s vineyard revenue. Current growth in wineries is six times that of farms.

Grapes. Photo: iStock Patricia Skinkis. Photo: Steve Dodrill

Wine grapes ripened in warm southern Oregon valleys pack in the polysaccharides that help create full-bodied red wines, according to Patricia Skinkis, an OSU Extension viticulture specialist. Photos: iStock and Steve Dodrill.

Unlike vineyards in the central Willamette Valley, southern Oregon growers are not tying themselves to the temperamental Pinot noir, said Patricia Skinkis, an OSU viticulture specialist in the Department of Horticulture. Because of the region’s warmer, drier climate, growers are experimenting with other varietals, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer and Tempranillo.

“Southern Oregon growers are diversifying their vineyards and really leading the push for new varietal development that is then making its way up into the Pinot-centric Willamette Valley,” said Skinkis. “There are a lot of people putting a lot of thought and artistry into Oregon wine production, and we’re seeing a growing appreciation for the wine coming out of some of the smaller wineries and vineyards.”

The interest in developing new vineyards and wineries in southern Oregon is coming in part from people who are new to the area and entering the industry as a second career, said VanBuskirk.

Wine bottles. Photo: Steve Dodrill Winetasting. Photo: Steve Dodrill

There are now more than 100 vineyards in southern Oregon producing nearly 20 percent of the state’s wine grape revenue. Many growers are new to the industry, anxious to learn what they can from OSU research and Extension. Photos: Steve Dodrill.

“We’re seeing a lot of old farm land purchased and put into vineyards,” he said. “Orchards are being taken down and vines put in. They’re coming in with a lot of enthusiasm and a strong sense of romance toward the industry.”

Overall wine sales from southern Oregon have risen 15 to 20 percent a year over the past three years, said Steve Renquist, who works closely with the Oregon Wine Industry from his OSU Extension office in Douglas County. The industry’s success is leading economic development and increasing tourism throughout the predominantly rural counties.

“The wine brings people in for tastings, festivals, and events,” he said. “But they end up experiencing much more. They get a chance to explore rural Oregon and visit the small family operations that are reinvigorating the Oregon wine scene.”

Published in: Food Systems, People