Definition - What does Vanilla mean?

Vanilla is a wine term used to describe vanilla characteristics – aroma and taste – in wine. These characteristics are usually found in wines that have been aged in oak barrels. Vanilla is common in both white and red wines that have been aged in oak and appears in both smell and taste.

WineFrog explains Vanilla

Vanilla is one of several characteristics created by oak aging; the other common characteristics include coconut, caramel, smoke, coffee, spice (especially clove), nuttiness, dill (especially American oak) and tobacco. White wines aged in oak usually have vanilla combined with butter and sometimes coconut; red wines aged in oak have vanilla coupled with baking spices and sometimes dill.

Oak contains “vanillin”, a compound that creates the characteristics of vanilla. Type of oak and how the oak is treated prior to aging changes the degree of the vanilla characteristic in a wine. Of the types of oak used to age wine, some provide more vanilla than others. The following examples are the best known for vanilla characteristics:

  • France’s White oak (Quercus petraea) – finer grained; provides a richer aromatic vanilla component
  • Hungarian oak – hemicelluloses breaks down easily; exception vanilla flavors though less intense
  • American oak – two to four times more lactones; intense sweet and vanilla overtones

When an oak barrel is toasted, the furanic aldehydes are concentrated, producing the roasted aroma in wine. This enhances the presence of vanillin and phenol eugenol, which create the vanilla and smoky notes.

Wines that are commonly known for having vanilla characteristics are:

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