From physics, to form, to music: A journey into varietal aromas in 3 red wines

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, a French nobleman and scientist from the 18th century known as the father of chemistry, discovered the Law of Conservation of Mass in which, in any closed system, matter is neither created or destroyed, but only transformed, meaning in chemical reactions, while parts are moved around, the overall quantity remains the same.

Example of The Law of Conservation of Mass in a chemical reaction
An example of The Law of Conservation of Mass in a chemical reaction

The Law of Conservation of Energy, or the First Law of Thermodynamics, was to follow, stated first by William Rankine in 1850, but developed by many scientists and believed to originate from Sir Isaac Newton. 50 years later, Albert Einstein merged the two into the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy in 1905 with the equation E=MC2.

Albert Einstein at the blackboard with his equation E=MC2
Albert Einstein at the blackboard with his equation E=MC2

My knowledge of physics is limited, so I would like to focus on these scientific laws conceptually. What strikes me about Lavoisier’s Law of Conservation of Mass is not only does everything come from something, and nothing is ever really lost, but also that an intrinsic part of life is change. The human mind may perceive change in the fact that one is now different than one was in the past and in the future one will be different still. However, this is only a linear perception of time, 3 dimensional if you will. Returning to Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, exists a space-time continuum where all of space and time already exists, and while events happen within it, one’s perception of the space and time they occupy is relative, suggesting that it is not necessarily linear, in what is known as the 4th dimension. I believe that this concept is also contained in Lavoisier’s law in the sense that everything already exists, if only persisting in a constant state of becoming. But what does this have to do with wine?

The space-time continuum
The space-time continuum

In a previous post I looked at varietal aromas in three white wines that are formed at three different times in their state of evolution.

I would now like to look at varietal aromas in three red wines of French origin cultivated around the world: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot. As with the white wines I explored, there are distinct aroma compounds either found in the grape themselves or formed during or after fermentation, which make these wines easily recognisable, even in a blind tasting. However, with red wines the chemical reactions involved are much more complex given the addition of phenolic components derived from maceration.

In fact, the book Il Piacere del Vino (The Pleasure of Wine), published by Presidio Slow Food, refers to the structure of white wines as two dimensional, with an equilibrium to be found between alcohol and acidity, while the structure of red wines is three dimensional, with an equilibrium to be found between alcohol, acidity and tannins.

Info graphic of equilibrium in white wines, Il Piacere del Vino
Info graphic of equilibrium in white wines, Il Piacere del Vino
Vedel’s Triangle showing the equilibrium of red wines, Il Piacere del Vino
Vedel’s triangle showing the equilibrium of red wines, Il Piacere del Vino

And if red wine could be thought to be 3 dimensional, why not four dimensional in the sense of Einstein’s Space-Time continuum where everything already exists, if nonetheless occurring at different times?

It is also therefore necessary to speak of these varietal aromas as a group of aromas, formed with varying levels of intensity and quality, and expressed in accordance to the harmony, bouquet, or molecular matrix that is the culmitive whole of the wine.

I have Luigi Moio to thank, in his book Il Respiro del Vino (The Breath of Wine), for illuminating a world of chemical structures and their intricate interactions which are at the source of what we perceive in wine. He himself refers to these three wines (among others) as “solisti”, soloists with specific varietal aromas stable enough to dominate over the others, as opposed to “orchestrali”, orchestra wines which don’t have stable enough aromas that consistently predominate over the others but rather work together to give the wine its character.

Illustration of “vini solisti” from Moio’s book “Il Respiro del Vino”
Illustration of “vini solisti” from Moio’s book “Il Respiro del Vino”
Illustration of “vini orchestrali” from Moio’s book “Il Respiro del Vino”
Illustration of “vini orchestrali” from Moio’s book “Il Respiro del Vino”

As a visual thinker, without knowing very much about chemistry, or physics for that matter, I’m intrigued by the idea of percise structures or forms that interact with other forms to create new ones, and that this complex organization of forms on a molecular level creates a sensorial world that we can enter into with the engagement of our senses and perception. In averting my focus on the wine as a whole, I’m inclined to see it as a sum of parts, that of which have been transformed and will continue to alter in form at the tiniest level, leading to the subtleties and shades perceived in any given wine at any given moment.

And if these structures are thought to already exist, to be persistently in the act of becoming, to be unleashed into an unimaginable immensity of time and space, to be instruments in a composed symphony, it is a truly beautiful thought indeed.

Green Pepper Aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon 

Green pepper is a typical varietal aroma of this wine and is derived from the presence of aroma compounds called Pyrazines. Other aromas from these compounds include green peppercorn, potato skins and peas. This aroma could be considered a primary aroma because, even though you can’t smell it in the grapes themselves, you can taste it when you chew on them, together with grassy notes derived from breaking vegetal fibres. In fact, this aroma becomes even more evident during alcholic fermentation and is enhanced by the grassy notes released when the grapes are pressed. Pyrazines tend to decrease with the maturation of the grapes and their exposure to sunlight, so if this aroma dominates over the other aromas in the wine it is a sign that the grapes did not reach full maturity, and is thus considered a defect. Other varietals that contain high amounts of Pyrazines include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Aglianico.

Red and Black Currant Aromas in Pinot Noir 

Pinot Noir is very different from Cabernet Sauvignon in that it grows best in cooler climates which help to preserve the delicate aroma compounds that tend to disintegrate with too much maturation. Typical varietal aromas include red and black currant, cherry, wild strawberry and blackberry, however these aromas are only produced after alcoholic fermentation. The grapes themselves are odorless and the must is characterised by grassy notes produced from the breaking of vegetal fibres, as in most wines. Chemical reactions in fermentation produce these red berry aromas which remain stable, gaining greater finesses and elegance with ageing. The best expression of Pinot Noir can be found in Burgundy in the premiers crus of Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune.

Forest Fruit Aromas in Merlot 

The aromas in Merlot are somewhat an anomaly, because while the wine has distinct and recognizable aromas, they are derived from the same aroma compounds found in most red wines and the specific chemical reactions that make Merlot so unique are yet to be discovered. Typical varietal aromas include forest fruits such as blueberry, raspberry, cranberry, blackberry and strawberry, and are derived from the chemical class of esters. These aromas compounds are produced during alcoholic fermentation and have a more elegant expression if the grapes are not overmature with hints of pepper, coffee, tabacco, mint, cacao, violette and rose. This wine is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon as the fullness and roundness of Merlot’s fruity aromas and structure is complemented by the freshness and elegance of the tannins and spices in Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Some of the best expressions of this famous Bordeaux blend are Saint-Emilion and Pommerol.

Wine as physics, as form, and as music.

“Il grande vino é una fusione perfetta tra scienza e poesia.”

A great wine is the perfect fusion of science and poetry. 

-Luigi Moio

Sources: “Il Piacere del Vino, come imparare a bere meglio” (Slow Food Editore), “Il Respiro del Vino” (Luigi Moio)


  1. A very deep and thoughtful post, I especially like the analogy of soloist and orchestra which I’m sure applies to my own tasting experience at the orchestra end of such a dimension. When I go to a concert, if a solo violinist plays I can of course hear it, but when the orchestra plays together my ability to pick out even the violinist contribution is zero! Same with wines!
    Two nights ago we were out having dinner in Rully near Beaune with three winemakers. We opened a bottle of Premier Cru Rully and surprisingly I immediately tasted strawberry which is most unusual for me. Of our three friends, one said “me too” the other two said “non!”. So as always, my synapses and ultimate taste perception is different from yours, and although I understand that pyrizines etc DO exist as proven by mass spectrometer or chromatography for example, wine tasting notes should be issued with a disclaimer 😂😂 that the purchaser may not get the same experience in all cases. One day someone will sue because they didn’t get the cherry which was promised most emphatically!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Or was it the other way around, see the forest through the trees? In any case, maybe the sound of a citrus tree falling is more familiar, maybe they fell at the same time, maybe the cherry tree sounded like something else, maybe the cherry tree was further away, maybe it was quieter…

        Liked by 1 person

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