Ask Wine Wizard

What would happen if you added a vanilla bean to red wine in hopes of getting some vanilla flavors traditionally given off by oak barrels?


R. Circe — East Lyme, Connecticut asks,

I often hear about the vanilla flavors in red wines. I know that those flavors are derived over time from aging in oak barrels. I wanted to know what would happen if you added a vanilla bean or vanilla extract to a red wine?

The Wine Wizard replies: It’s illegal for commercial winemakers to add anything non-Vitis vinifera to their table wine and still have it be labeled as such. However, I’m sure that many an enterprising home winemaker has done what you suggest. Indeed, since vanilla (natural or artificial) is a lovely flavor and aromatic component of many foods and beverages, it makes perfect sense to consider it as a wine additive. A compound called vanillin is responsible for the vanilla-like aroma that is often associated with oak aging, especially of Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). Vanillin is one of the six-membered benzene ring structures (remember your high school chemistry course?). Commercial vanilla extract is high in vanillin, or compounds that smell remarkably like it, and I could see a small amount being an interesting component in some styles of homemade wine. The main challenge to using any aroma or flavor-boosting compound is how to do it in such a way that the results are pleasing to the winemaker. My first piece of advice is to be conservative. Commercially-available vanilla
Response by Alison Crowe.