Through the ages, we have developed a slightly obsessive relationship with the undoubtedly aphrodisiac vanilla, which could explain why we use it everywhere! Vanilla exudes a complex fragrance consisting of hundreds of different active principles, as well as woody, floral and vegetable aromas. Also emanating from the fragrant vanilla fruit are notes likes cocoa, tobacco, licorice, dried fruits, clove, honey, caramel, smoke, damp soil and butter. Researchers have even discovered that when they sprayed vanilla fragrance in the incubators of premature babies, it helped them relax and fight to survive! Let’s travel together down the aromatic path of this great seductress…
To date, scientists have found that the highly aromatic bouquet of vanilla contains over 200 aromatic compounds. For example, they found that it contains “phenolic” compounds, one being “vanillin”, and wonderfully rich flavors that are amplified by the presence of amino acids. One of the reasons vanilla is considered to be the queen of spices is that all of these components contribute in giving it a full, sweet, sensuous and persistent scent. Moreover, one of the many properties of vanilla is that it produces a buffer effect. Vanilla is used in the art of perfumery to stifle the power of other ingredients that are considered too volatile and therefore too harsh for the human nose.
It is known that oak releases a variety of aromatic compounds, including vanilla-flavored vanillin. This was understood by winemakers centuries ago, and they began aging their most prized vintages in oak barrels. At the end of the nineteenth century, the tasting notes of wine brokers revealed that some tasters had already noticed the obvious charms of Burgundy wines that had been aged in oak casks.
As you know, there are countless ways to use vanilla in cooking. But did you know that vanilla is known to quell the heat of really spicy dishes? This buffer effect also applies to wines. Therefore, wines with high concentrations of vanilla also lessen the heat of very spicy foods. But actually, vanilla gives a rounded effect to any pungent and spicy concoction. It is also partly responsible for appeasing the bitterness and fire of young cognacs and whiskies in the early years of their aging process in oak barrels.
Vanilla in Wines
When it comes to wines, the ester known as “ethyl vanillate” is responsible for the aromatic note of vanilla, rather than vanillin itself. Ethyl vanillate is a component that is slightly less pungent than vanillin. It appears in wine through a series of reactions that occur as it ages in oak barrels. However, as wood lignin (the fibrous part of wood) and grape stems both contain ethyl vanillate, this ester can also develop in red wines that are aged in stainless steel tanks, and in some white wines made from overly-crushed grapes.
Here is another interesting fact: American white oak releases more vanilla and spice compounds, especially clove, than its European counterpart. And because most synthetic vanilla is made with cloves, the presence of these two in American white oak barrels explains how vanilla dominates the nose of wines that are aged in them. For an astounding combination, serve dishes dominated by vanilla and/or cloves with wines that were aged in American oak barrels. Surprisingly simple, yet exhilarating!
There is an astounding range of fragrant wines that are marked by vanilla. However, to get acquainted with wines that have well-balanced nose of vanilla, I recommend you try wines that were either fully aged or partly aged in American barrels from the Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro and from Jumilla regions of Spain. Certain New World Merlots raised in American oak barrels are also a good option.
On the other hand, you may also want to be a bit more adventurous and try non Muscat-based aged sweet fortified wines (VDN) that were raised in an oxidative environment such as Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes. Certain VDNs are aged in very old oak barrels and under highly oxidizing conditions, resulting in the accumulation of ethyl vanillate. Consequently, these sweet wines have very characteristic aromas of vanilla.
It is also known that the older the wood is, the less it releases phenolic compounds, which is why the aroma of vanilla is typically stronger in new oak barrels. However, older oak barrels allow the emergence and substantial increase of vanillin and of ethyl vanillate. Moreover, vanilla plays a key organoleptic role in the aromatic profile of non Muscat-based VDNs aged in oxidative environments.
In the Kitchen
As in perfumery, vanilla base notes give a more rounded bouquet to the olfactory composition of a dish and has a buffering effect on other ingredients that are too volatile and therefore too harsh for the nose. Provided vanilla is used sparingly, it can add depth, warmth and roundness to savory lobster and pork dishes. However, like all volatile compounds, its fragrances are more soluble in fats and alcohol. Therefore, its flavor is maximized when used in fatty mixtures. For example, one of the reasons English cream is such a phenomenally successful recipe is that vanilla is absolutely wonderful in creamy and velvety sauces.
Interestingly, turmeric, beetroot and cloves also contain good precursory levels of vanillin. A very interesting and conclusive harmonic path to follow is to serve wines dominated by vanilla with dishes containing turmeric, beetroot or cloves.
Another surprise is that cooked wild rice also develops a slight vanilla taste. It is therefore an excellent side dish when serving wines with vanilla undertones, such as those made with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Another interesting ingredient is maple syrup. Often dominated by the flavor of vanilla, it merges wonderfully with the sweet bitterness of the Tonka bean, which also has the aroma of vanilla.
The inside of oak barrels must be scorched before being filled, and it is at this stage that vanillin appears. This process is partly responsible for the scent of vanilla found in wines, whiskeys and cognacs. Furthermore, food that is either cooked or smoked on wood fires, such as breads and meats, develops flavors of vanilla as it becomes aromatically contaminated by smoke during the cooking process. This is why woody wines and grilled meats are so amazingly delicious together!
From a molecular point of view, the aroma of caramel, which is an “aldehyde”, is very similar to that of nuts and vanilla. It contains an aldehyde composed of the same atoms as those found in nuts and in vanilla, but arranged differently. This explains the stirring union between nuts, caramel and vanilla in desserts. Hence, wines that are marked by this fragrance unite marvelously with caramel, nuts and vanilla. Therefore, this delicious trio is sublime with wines of the same aromatic nature such as amontillado or Oloroso sherry, as well as French non Muscat-based sweet fortified white wines long-aged in oak barrels.
Tips from the sommelier-cook
Try one of these quick and easy tips when serving wines that have a hint of vanilla. Try adding a little vanilla to the liquid in which you will poach fish - this will soften the flavor and create a powerful harmony with the wine. Vanilla is also a wonderful replacement for the usual Pastis or saffron in bouillabaisse. Another great tip is steeping a vanilla bean in fruit juice or in a neutral alcohol. The great thing is that you can use this vanilla-flavored juice or vanilla-flavored alcohol in fresh fruit salad and in cocktails, or to deglaze a pan!
Wines that are too woody, and therefore have powerful vanilla aromas, usually fall apart when served with cheese. So, why not cheat a little by using a vanilla-flavored olive oil? Choose an excellent olive oil that is very fruity and has sweet nut and banana accents, such as the Spanish Manzanilla Cacereña. Pour the olive oil in a bottle and hang fresh vanilla beans in the top section of the bottle, making sure the beans do not touch the oil, and cap the bottle. The effect is much more intense and pure than steeping vanilla beans directly into the olive oil. The same technique is also used to make truffle oil. Lightly sprinkle this vanilla-flavored olive oil on a slice of country bread and enjoy with cheese, followed by a sip of woody wine. By adding this vanilla-flavored oil, a natural binder allows the harmony between woody wine and cheese. Whether you prefer a non Muscat-based VDN aged in an oxidative environment, a dry white wine or a red, the choice is yours! And as nuts are from the same molecular family as vanilla, serve woody wines and cheeses with unsalted nuts. One last thing to remember is that dry white and red wines fare much better with nuts than with fruits, because the acidity and sweetness of fruits renders dry wines quite unpalatable.
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