Yes, I’d like to think my motives were scientific, but I suspect the real reason I wanted to challenge a dog to a wine sniff-off was because of the time I got nailed by the airport customs beagle. I was just back from a wine trip to Spain when the beagle, looking spiffy in a green jacket, made a beeline for my suitcase and woofed at it. That was the end of my carefully wrapped package of jamón ibérico.
“You can’t bring that into the country,” said the beagle’s handler, an unsmiling woman in a uniform.
“Can I give it to the dog?”
“Of course not.”
The beagle looked at me smugly, as if to say, “I am an official U.S. Customs and Border Protection Ag Detector Dog. And you, you ham smuggler, are a bonehead.”
So maybe it was a bit of getting my own back, because a few years later, here I was at Sojourn Cellars in Sonoma, California, ready for a nose-to-nose showdown with Ziggy, a five-year-old fox-red Labrador retriever who’d been trained since birth to sniff out TCA.
It might be useful to explain what TCA is. It is 2,4,6- trichloroanisole, a chemical substance that makes winemakers grit their teeth and mutter expletives, because it is responsible for what’s known as “cork taint.” Cork taint is a big problem for anyone who makes or drinks wine. Whether the wine is a $200 Bordeaux or a $5 Shiraz, that 25-cent cork stuck in the neck of the bottle can, if contaminated with TCA, render it worthless. What’s even more frustrating is that many people who buy wine are uncertain how to tell whether a bottle is contaminated, so most end up drinking it anyway, then sitting back and thinking, Well, that wasn’t very good.
So here’s what you need to know. First, when someone says a wine is “corked” or “corky,” they mean that the cork, and thus the wine, has been contaminated with TCA. (They don’t mean that there are stray bits of cork floating around in the liquid.) Depending on the amount of TCA present, the wine will range from smelling like nothing at all—low levels of TCA will kill a wine’s aroma and flavor, even if the scent of the TCA itself isn’t discernible—to smelling like an old, damp cardboard shoe box removed from under a pile of moldy newspapers.
TCA is incredibly potent. One ounce of pure TCA would be enough to noticeably contaminate about 10 billion bottles of wine, or more than five times California’s annual wine production. Luckily, TCA tends to occur in amounts measured in parts per trillion, rather than ounces. But even at those microscopic levels, its presence can be damaging. Almost anyone can pick up the musty, damp scent of TCA at about 10 parts per trillion. Swirl the wine in a glass, sniff it, and if the aroma evokes someone’s grandfather’s basement, that bottle is corked. Experienced wine tasters can sometimes detect TCA in concentrations as low as one part per trillion.
A certain percentage of wine corks (and, less frequently, barrels or wooden pallets—also, rarely, entire wineries) end up contaminated with TCA. The chemistry of why this occurs is complicated. Essentially what happens is that phenols in cork-tree bark, when exposed to chlorine compounds (for various reasons), react with fungi or mold in the bark to produce TCA. How often this happens is much debated. The cork industry finds that TCA contaminates a very small number of corks, less than one percent (improved quality controls have helped in recent years). But winemakers tend to find the prevalence to be much higher, from three to five percent. What no one disagrees on is that some percentage of corks are tainted.
If you think about it, the fact that people put up with this kind of contamination is bizarre. What would happen, in contrast, if five percent of all the milk sold in grocery stores was spoiled? Of course, the fact that TCA’s effects can be subtle, and that people generally aren’t as familiar with wine as they are with milk, may explain why there isn’t a public outcry against this problem.
But there has been a reaction within the wine industry. All this TCA trauma has led to the rise of alternative seals for bottles—screw caps, glass stoppers, plastic corks, crown caps and the mysteriously named Zork, a kind of plastic stopper, among others. It’s also, to some degree, a reason why someone would train a dog to sniff out TCA.
Of course, I didn’t fly out to Sonoma to meet Ziggy solely because of my run-in with the airport customs beagle. It was more a way to make a point, which is that any creature with a sense of smell can learn to identify TCA. My wife, Cecily, for instance—a charming woman who would probably look alarmed if anyone accused her of being a wine expert—can spot cork taint with the best of them. As far as I can tell, this is simply because she lives with an odd man who often shoves glasses of wine at her and says, “I could swear this thing’s corked. What do you think?”
In Sonoma, I drove to Sojourn Cellars to meet Ziggy’s owner, Craig Haserot, who makes very good Pinot Noir when he’s not entertaining strange requests from wine writers. He told me that Ziggy had previously been owned by a friend who supplies oak staves, chips and dust to the wine industry; this friend was the one who’d decided that a dog trained to sniff out TCA would be helpful around a drying facility, as a backup to chemical testing. This wasn’t a far-fetched idea: Humans have about 12 million olfactory receptors, whereas dogs have about 220 million, and when was the last time you heard about someone using a human to sniff out bombs? Unfortunately, it turned out that the friend traveled internationally too much to care for a dog, and so he bequeathed Ziggy to Haserot.
“She was in a really gnarly, hard-core training program,” Haserot said. Ziggy came over and sat down on my foot, looking neither gnarly nor hard-core, but cute and sweet. “She came out of the kennel knowing how to find TCA, but nothing else. She didn’t even know how to play.” Ziggy looked up at me plaintively. “She wants her b-a-l-l,” Haserot explained. Apparently, playing wasn’t a problem anymore.
Well, ball time later for you, hound, I thought. Haserot had cut up a barrel stave earlier and dipped one piece in a very diluted TCA solution, somewhere under two parts per trillion. We hid them, and Haserot said, “Ziggy! Find it!” Ziggy zigged and zagged—she searches in a back-and-forth pattern, hence her name. She found the non-TCA stave, ignored it, found the TCA stave, grabbed it in her teeth, and brought it to Haserot, who gave her a dog treat.
Then it was my turn. I wasn’t going to roam around on all fours—I had to maintain a certain amount of dignity here—but I did attempt to differentiate between the pieces of wood with my eyes closed. Now, my ability to pick up TCA is pretty good for a human. (I had my TCA threshold tested at a Napa company called Vinquiry for $75, something a lot of wineries have their staff do, and apparently I can pick it up at levels of one part per trillion; I even got a nifty certificate to that effect.) But when it comes to detecting trace amounts of TCA on oak barrel staves, compared to Ziggy, I’m an olfactory dolt. I could point out that chunks of oak don’t smell like glasses full of wine; I could also argue that the presence of dog slobber adds an additional aromatic note to oak that might, in my case, possibly have obscured the faint scent of TCA. On the other hand, I could also just admit that I lost. I’m a good sport. I knelt down. “Good job, Ziggy. Shake.”
Ziggy lifted a paw. We shook. And, unlike that beagle in the airport, she didn’t gloat at all.
The most entertaining way to learn about wine is to invite a few friends to a tasting in your own home. The more you know about wine, the more rewarding the tasting will be, but even if you’re a neophyte, you’ll be amused—and educated. All you need are an appropriate group of bottles, a corkscrew, good company and an open mind.
I recommend a short tasting before lunch or dinner so that you can follow up by drinking the same wines with your meal. I’d stick to no more than eight tasters and line up no more than four glasses in front of each person. Depending on how many wines you’d like to sample, serve them in “flights,” or groups, of three or four. Pour one and a half or two ounces per glass; that will give everyone enough to taste and still leave part of each bottle to serve later. For this kind of casual event, you should select one of the following two approaches:
A tasting of representative examples of the same grape variety from different areas—Chardonnays from Burgundy, California, Washington State, Australia, New Zealand, northern Italy, Spain and Chile, for instance—is the better choice for relative beginners. The wines should be of roughly the same age to minimize the number of tasting variables. This kind of comparative tasting is ideal for learning how various regions contribute their own distinctive character to the same variety and which versions you prefer.
The second option is a tasting of wines from a single category and a single vintage: 1993 Bordeaux or 1994 Oregon Pinot Noirs. If you gather together, say, 1993 Bordeaux from such major appellations as Pauillac, St-Julien, Graves, St-Emilion and Pomerol, you will have wines of markedly different character, and you will never be able to experience these differences more clearly than when tasting the wines side by side.
But a horizontal tasting can be rigorous, as the distinctions among young wines in some categories may be quite subtle. At my first serious tasting of Bordeaux from the Médoc region, I could not believe the discussion going on around me about the differences between the wines. To me, everything was black currants and shoe polish and mouth-numbing tannins. But as I listened to my more experienced companions and returned to the glasses in front of me, I was able to identify black cherry, raspberry and plum notes, not to mention nuances of leather, tobacco and grilled meat. As the evening progressed, I could discern more or less intensity and complexity of flavor, as well as the contrast between fine, gentle tannins and coarser, drier ones. Wine is like any other subject: once you learn a little and master a basic vocabulary, you can quickly absorb a lot.
Remove the capsule from the top of each bottle, then roll the bottle in foil, crushing the bottom flat. Number each with a marking pen to ensure that the right wines are poured into the right glasses. (It is easier to uncork the bottles after they are wrapped.) You’ll be referring to wine No. 2 or wine No. 3 and revealing the labels only at the end.
The reason for tasting “blind” is simply to avoid being swayed by the labels. We tend to be less willing to find fault with wines with swanky names and more reluctant to give high marks to supposedly inferior bottles. One of the joys of a blind tasting is that it virtually always produces surprises.
Cover the table with a white cloth so that your guests can easily examine the color of each wine. Or arrange the glasses on white plastic-coated sheets or butcher paper; their friction-free surfaces make it easier to swirl the wine in your glass.
An ideal all-purpose tasting glass is Riedel Crystal’s Ouverture Red Wine glass, widely available for $7.50 to $9; the more expensive Riedel Vinum Chardonnay glass, about twice the price, has a somewhat more elegant shape. Both are narrower at the rim than they are at the middle of the bowl and large enough to allow you to swirl a few ounces of wine without splashing your neighbor.
Strong scents in the room will interfere with your ability to taste wine. The floral and spice aromas your guests find in their glasses may come from that Ralph Lauren potpourri on the sideboard.
Chill dry whites to between 50 and 55 degrees and reds to between 60 and 65 degrees. At refrigerator temperature, the aromas and flavors of white wines are typically stunted. And reds served too warm may be dulled by their alcohol.
Supply some bread or crackers for your guests to munch on between wines. Crunchy French bread or neutral biscuits are excellent choices. I also often serve fresh lightly salted mozzarella, which has an uncanny knack for ridding the mouth of strong tastes.
You don’t need to swallow wine to taste it. In fact, the less you swallow, the longer you’ll be able to maintain your acuity. Spittoons can be large coffee mugs or opaque plastic cups, preferably weighted so that they cannot overturn easily. A larger bucket on the table allows tasters to empty their glasses and spittoons at the end of each flight.
Begin by examining the color of the wine against a white background, tilting the glass away from you. Look for bright and, in the case of red wines, saturated color. A young red that is going brown at the rim is probably aging too quickly, while a white that is unusually dark may be showing signs of incipient oxidation.
To release the aromas of a wine, swirl it in the glass and then give it a deep sniff. Repeat as necessary, taking notes.
Take a good-size sip. Hold the wine in your mouth; swish it around, allowing it to coat your entire palate. What does the wine feel like? Is it thin and acidic? Is it rich and velvety? .
Draw in some air be-tween your front teeth or across your tongue and “gargle” the wine in your mouth. Keep in mind that your tongue can identify only four basic tastes: saltiness, bitterness, sweetness and acidity. All other flavors actually reach your brain as aromas through the retronasal passage at the back of your throat. By “chewing” the wine, or combining it with air, you cause its volatile elements to vaporize.
Free associate as you smell and taste the wine, and jot down the descriptive words or phrases that come to mind. Make sure the wine is clean, that is, lacking such obvious faults as a vinegary quality, mustiness (which may be due to a bad cork), oxidation (the smell of sherry or Madeira) or a strong suggestion of the barnyard.
Is the wine light and crisp? Is it soft and full-bodied? Is it rough or smooth?.
Generally speaking, a good mature wine should display a harmony of components; no single element should dominate. But perhaps your wine is overwhelmed by scents of new oak barrels or is excessively tan-nic or alcoholic. Keep in mind, though, that very young wines often need some bottle aging to achieve harmony.
If there is a single reliable indicator of wine quality, it’s the length of the aftertaste, or finish. A wine that disappears virtually the mo-ment you spit or swallow it probably lacks concentration or was made from marginally ripe grapes. An outstanding wine lingers on your palate for 20 to 30 seconds and sometimes much longer.
Allow everyone enough time to taste through each flight of wines and take a few notes. Then discuss the various bottles, exchanging your tasting notes and your likes and dislikes. It will work to the group’s advantage if one person with a general familiarity with wine is able to provide the basic parameters for the category of wine you’re tasting.
As you discuss the wines, retaste them to see whether they have changed with aeration. Notice how some improve and grow richer while others lose their shape and freshness.
Pick your favorites before revealing the labels.
Later, as you drink the same wines with your meal, note how some complement the food and others overwhelm it with monolithic flavors or excessive alcohol or new oak. A wine that grabbed your attention during the tasting may ultimately prove tiring to drink, but another that was less compelling may come alive with your meat course. Compare your impressions at the table with the opinions recorded in your tasting notes.
And save your notes so that you can recall your preferences the next time you find yourself in a wine shop.
Ask me whether a Pinot Noir tastes of cherries or plums, and I’ll usually guess wrong. But ask me if it’s velvety or feels like sandpaper in my mouth, and I know intuitively. For me, it’s easier to discern a wine’s texture than it is to analyze its aromas or flavors. And when I pick a wine for dinner, I often seek a particular texture more than a specific taste—chewy or sharp, fizzy or smooth, or some sensation in between. Indeed, many winemakers say that texture is the visceral quality that makes their wines craveable.
There are a few compounds in wine whose interactions help to create texture. First there’s acidity, which can make a wine feel either sharp or soft in the mouth. The ripeness of the grapes when they’re picked can affect a wine’s acidity, but winemakers can also modify what nature gave them. Wines that undergo malolactic fermentation (a science-geeky term for a chemical process that changes a wine’s acidity) may feel smoother than ones that don’t; they might even seem creamy. That’s because malolactic fermentation transforms tart malic acid into softer lactic acid (the kind in milk).
Tannins, which are astringent compounds present in grape skins and seeds, also affect texture. A young red wine with lots of tannins may feel anywhere from appealingly chewy to harsh and raspy; 10 years down the line, these same tannins may turn silky. Winemakers can control tannin levels. Leaving the skins and seeds in the fermentation tank for a long time with the grape juice means the wine that emerges will be powerfully tannic. Removing skins and seeds earlier makes the texture more velvety.
Alcohol is the third factor in creating texture. Wines with lots of alcohol tend to feel rich and full in one’s mouth. Since very ripe grapes tend to produce high-alcohol wines, warmer winemaking regions (like Napa Valley) tend to produce “bigger” wines than cooler regions (like Burgundy).
What does all this add up to in terms of food? Well, when I make a creamy dish like fettuccine Alfredo tossed with fresh ricotta and basil, I often pour a tart white, like a dry Riesling or Chablis-style Chardonnay, that feels prickly in my mouth.
For robust dishes like a red wine–braised octopus dotted with juicy black olives, I look for warm-climate reds like Australian Shirazes. These wines have lots of tannins and ripe fruit (and tend to be higher in alcohol), so they’re terrifically chewy, like a Guinness stout.
Lastly, for rich dishes like crispy fried cornmeal hush puppies, I like to pour fizzy wines with lots of bubbles. I would suggest drinking Champagne while you make these hush puppies—they’re so much fun to fry—but doing this usually means that by the time the hush puppies are ready, the Champagne is gone.
At this new San Francisco shop, Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo create rustic arrangements—they call their style “just picked from the garden”—for clients like Delfina restaurant. The pair write a column for the Design Sponge blog about their farmers’-market inspirations, like fragrant fruit layered with herbs and flowers, as in the arrangement here. “We designed it to seem like it was growing and ripening,” Rizzo says.
Flowers Honeysuckle, jasmine and roses are loosely gathered with sage, apricots and thyme so they “look like each flower is finding a space to open in the sun,” Rizzo says. Acacia bowl from Crate & Barrel, $6; crateandbarrel.com.
Wine 2009 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontés ($15). Torrontés is a white grape that is primarily planted in Argentina. The vibrant, medium-bodied wine features potent stone fruit and floral aromas of honeysuckle and jasmine that mirror the scents in Studio Choo’s arrangement.
Food Sautéed shrimp in a bright citrus-herb pan sauce pairs beautifully with the fresh acidity in a white wine like Torrontés. Adding oranges to the dish complements the wine’s orange-blossom notes.
Holly Vesecky and Rebecca Uchtman, who run Los Angeles’s Holly Flora, gravitate toward bright flowers showcased in sculptural arrangements, like the irises in a vintage ikebana (Japanese floral sculpture) vase at left. “We love bold colors and fresh herbs,” says Vesecky. “We’re so inspired by color. White is sort of tame. Everybody wanted to send white flowers for such a long time because they felt like it was very elegant, very Ralph Lauren. Now it’s about being casual, enthusiastic and colorful.” hollyflora.com.
Flowers Peonies, lilacs and irises look even more vivid when combined with bright green herbs like mint and basil.
Wine 2007 Hugel Gewürztraminer ($22). Gewürztraminer from Alsace is a full-bodied white with a rich lychee aroma and juicy pear flavor.
Food Spicy Thai curry noodles go well with the fruity sweetness in Gewürztraminer.
© Alex De Cordoba
Holly Flora makes succulent-covered pet sculptures; actor Jason Schwartzman is a fan.
Sarah Ryhanen, co-owner of Saipua in New York City, has an unstructured style. She uses flowers with subdued scents at dinner parties so they don’t compete with the food: “We hear all the time, ‘Nothing fragrant on the table.’ ” saipua.com.
Flowers Ranunculus, dahlias, violets, scabiosa, black basil and oregano in a 10-inch-high parfait glass.
Wine 2008 C. Donatiello Maddie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($62). Pinot Noir from California often evokes violets, black cherries and red berries with subtle herbal notes.
Food Duck in a raspberry sauce is a classic pairing with Pinot Noir, which has deep berry flavors.
© Sarah Ryhanen
Ryhanen approaches soap-making the way she does flowers: by layering scents.
Aftertaste The flavor that lingers in your mouth after you swallow the wine. The length of the aftertaste is perhaps the single most reliable indicator of wine quality (see Finish).
Aroma The primary smell of a young, unevolved wine, consisting of the odors of the grape juice itself, of the fermentation process, and, if relevant, of the oak barrels in which the wine was made or aged.
Astringent Having mouthpuckering tannins; such a wine may merely need time to soften.
Austere Tough, dry and unforthcoming, often due to a severe tannic structure or simply to the extreme youth of a wine.
Balance The ratio of a wine’s key components, including fruitiness, sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcoholic strength. A balanced wine shows a harmony of components, with no single element dominating.
Body The weight of a wine on the palate, determined by its alcoholic strength and level of extract (see Extract). Wines are typically described as ranging from light-bodied to full-bodied.
Bouquet The richer, more complex fragrances that develop as a wine ages.
Closed Not especially aromatic, most likely due to recent bottling or to the particular stage of the wine’s development. Dumb is a synonym.
Corked, Corky Contaminated by a tainted cork (affected by a mold known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which gives the wine a musty, wet cardboard smell. Bad corks are a major problem, as they can ruin otherwise sound bottles. By most accounts 2 to 5 bottles out of 100 are affected by bad corks.
Crisp Refreshing, thanks to sound acidity.
Earthy Can be a component of complexity deriving from the wine’s distinctive soil character or a pejorative description for a rustic wine.
Extract Essentially the minerals and other trace elements in a wine; sugar-free dry extract is everything in a wine except water, sugar, acids and alcohol. High extract often gives wine a dusty, tactile impression of density. It frequently serves to buffer, or mitigate, high alcohol or strong acidity.
Fat Rich to the point of being unctuous, with modest balancing acidity.
Finish The final taste left by a sip of wine after you swallow. Wines can be said to have long or short finishes (see Aftertaste).
Firm Perceptibly tannic and/or acidic, in a positive way.
Flabby Lacking acidity and therefore lacking shape.
Fruity Aromas and flavors that derive from the grape, as opposed to the winemaking process or the barrels in which the wine was aged.
Green Too acid, raw or herbal; this may be due to underripe grapes or stems but may simply mean the wine needs time to develop.
Grip An emphatically firm, tactile finish.
Hard Too tannic or acidic; often a characteristic of a wine that needs more time in bottle.
Hot Noticeably alcoholic.
Jammy Slightly cooked flavors of jam rather than fresh fruit, often a characteristic of red wines from hot climates.
Lean Lacking flesh and body. Not necessarily pejorative, as some types of wines are lean by nature.
Middle Palate Literally, the part of the tastingexperience between the nose of the wine and its finish. The impact of a wine in the mouth.
Mouth Feel The physical impression of a wine in the mouth; its texture.
Nose The aroma or bouquet of a wine.
Oaky Smell or taste of the oak cask in which the wine was vinified and/or aged; oak notes can include such elements as vanilla, clove, cinnamon, cedar, smoke, toast, bourbon and coffee.
Oxidized Possessing a tired or stale taste due to excessive exposure to air. An oxidized white wine may have a darker than normal or even brown color.
Powerful Generally high in alcohol and/or extract.
Sharp Unpleasantly bitter or hard-edged.
Soft Low in tannin and/or acidity.
Spritz The faint prickle on the tongue of carbon dioxide (pétillance in French), generally found in young, light white wines.
Steely An almost metallic taste often noted in wines high in acidity and/or made from mineral-rich soil–especially Riesling.
Supple Round and smooth, as opposed to noticeably tannic or acidic.
Sweet A term applied not just to wines with significant residual sugar but also to those that show outstanding richness or ripeness.
Tart Noticeably acidic.
Tough Generally, a red wine that shows excessive tannin.
Vinous Literally wine-like, in terms of liveliness and acidity; but often used to describe the overall impression conveyed by a wine beyond simple fruitiness. This can include subtle flavors that come from the soil that produced the grapes, as well as from the winemaking and aging process.
Volatile Slightly vinegary due to a high level of acetic acid, referred to as volatile acidity (VA). But a minimum level of VA often helps to project a wine’s aromas without resulting in an unstable bottle. “High-toned” is jargon for faintly volatile, and is not necessarily pejorative.
When a friend introduced me to a natural perfumer named Mandy Aftel a few years ago, I had no idea how my life would change. She taught me about essential oils, which I began using in cooking, and, more importantly, about how our sense of smell affects what we feel and remember. We eventually wrote a book together about food and fragrance, and that led to a culinary collaboration. Mandy made a perfume to accompany a dish at my restaurant that contains the same aromas: ginger, black pepper, tarragon and cognac. Diners rub the perfume on their wrists and sniff it before tasting the dish to highlight the relationship between smell and taste, as well as to create an indelible memory of what they ate. It usually works, although occasionally diners, encountering this idea for the first time, find this scratch-and-sniff approach ridiculous. The funny thing is that these same skeptics usually find nothing odd about smelling their wine before drinking it.
In fact, the first thing a novice wine drinker usually learns to do is to smell a wine several times before tasting it, because most of what we think of as a wine’s flavor comes from its aroma. If your sense of smell is blocked, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish red wine from white, let alone identify more refined differences.
Much of the reason we are so strongly affected by wine’s aromas is due to physiology. Smell goes directly to an area of our brain called the limbic system, which is also a center of taste, emotion and memory. Evolutionarily speaking, that structure makes perfect sense: Once upon a time, before we hunted plastic-wrapped dinners under a fluorescent sun, we had to find food in the wild. Aroma, and the way it links to pleasure and memory, helped us distinguish plants that would kill us from those that would nourish us.
So here we are, thousands of years later, using a survival mechanism to enjoy a beverage that, unlike food, is not necessary for survival (though wine buffs may debate this point). Our sense of smell, and the way it links to what we feel and remember, has everything to do with what we like to drink and why.
The range of aromatic experiences in wine far exceeds that in food. No matter how it’s cooked, food generally smells like what it is: No amount of aging or fermenting can make a lamb chop smell like a grapefruit. But a Sauvignon Blanc grape, which in its raw state neither smells nor tastes anything like a grapefruit, may make a wine that does.
In addition to smelling like all manner of foods, from berries to bacon, a wine can smell like many things we can’t eat: granite, tar, cedar. Often, wines have composite aromas that are tantalizingly familiar, yet not easily identified. A wine’s scent can remind us of the briny seashore or herb-covered hillsides in spring, of a basket of strawberries in the sun or a walk through a forest on a rainy day. Wine’s ability to evoke other places and experiences gives it a powerful emotional component.
And yet, despite all of our technological advances in recent decades, we still don’t know exactly where these complex aromas in wine come from. “Wine is a profoundly transformative process,” says California winemaker Sean Thackrey. “The aromas of a wine are not in the grapes in the vineyard, or the pressed juice, or the fermentation tank. Often they don’t come out until much later.” We know that aromas are affected by how the grapes are treated in the vineyard, by the natural conditions, and then by how the wine is made and aged. We know that the primary aromas in wine generally come from the juice of grapes and its interaction with yeast. The two tango together in chemical reactions so complicated that we’ve only begun to understand how they work.
And we know, even if we’re not yet exactly sure why, that there are some scents that can only be expressed under certain conditions; nowhere else in the world can a wine be made with the powerful mushroom, dust and orange marmalade aromas of those from the vineyard of Montrachet. The most distinctive wines come from a specific spot on the earth, and their aromas cannot be duplicated.
It is this unique ability to capture the relationship between a place and the people who live there that gives wine its cultural significance. In traditional winegrowing regions in much of Europe, the wines people enjoy most are the ones that they grew up drinking—the wines of their birthplace. Just as we learn to love certain smells through association, our sensory memories and the way they link to our experiences dictate what we enjoy.
My wife’s college roommate still occasionally recounts the time that my wife threw away her perfectly ripe wheel of Vacherin. It stunk up the refrigerator so badly that, having never encountered a cheese like it, she quite reasonably assumed that it must be rotten. That cheese would be a delicacy in France, where it was made. But bring it to a rural village in China, where fermented tofu is more the norm than fermented milk, and the people there would probably react much as my wife did. Disgusting and delicious are relative, and both responses are learned.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to only like what we know from childhood. In fact, the opposite is true: Because of the way our sense of smell works, we can train our palates to evolve. Outside of extreme bitterness or rotting aromas, there are few scents to which we are biologically averse. By smelling, thinking and talking about what we drink, we can create a personal catalogue of sensory pleasures—and, occasionally, disappointments. I have learned, for example, that I like Lagrein, a native red variety from northern Italy’s Alto Adige region, with its gamey, earthy aromas of venison and wild herbs. But I don’t much care for New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs that smell like cat pee. On a practical level, when I’m choosing a wine to drink, my past experiences help guide me toward something that I’ll enjoy.
And those experiences also tell me when there’s something wrong with a wine. When a restaurant server pours a wine to try, I usually only smell it—I don’t need to taste it to know if the wine is flawed. Sometimes those flaws are obvious, like in the case of a corked wine, where the tainted cork has produced a musty smell of wet cardboard that is pretty easy to discern. But experience with a wine’s aromas is more important when the flaw is subtle. Sometimes barely corked or oxidized wines aren’t completely ruined, but the brightness of the fruit is dampened. A few weeks ago, I brought a mature Bordeaux to a dinner party. Having tasted the same wine a few weeks prior, the second I smelled the bottle I had brought, I knew it was off. The other dinner guests enjoyed it, but I didn’t, knowing how the wine should have tasted.
My most vivid wine memories are pleasant ones, however, of bottles I’ve shared with friends. I still remember an old vintage from the Corton-Bressandes region of Burgundy that I drank with a friend 13 years ago, which smelled just like the black truffle risotto and grilled pheasant I had made to accompany it. It was a spontaneous and wonderful meal, and when I smell a wine from that region now, I feel a bit of its refracted warmth.
It is this intersection of aroma, memory and pleasure that gives wine its enduring appeal. It’s also the best reason—and, since there aren’t many poisoned wines around these days, probably the crucial reason—to sniff your wine. If paying attention to aroma helps to find, drink and remember wines that we enjoy, then that should be reason enough to pause before drinking. And breathe deeply.
Daniel Patterson, an F&W Best New Chef in 1997, is the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco and the co-author of Aroma.
“Body is the sense of weight or richness or heaviness, and even the feeling of viscosity that a wine leaves in your mouth,” says Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, author of Great Wine Made Simple. Generally, the more alcohol in a wine, the more body it will have, which means that wines from warmer climates (which produce grapes with more sugar to be converted into alcohol) tend to have more heft. Sugar, oak and the overall concentration of flavors in a wine can also add body.
“A key principle for pairing is to match body with body, so that the wine’s not too heavy or light for the dish, and vice versa,” says Robinson.
“Wines have different weights and richnesses, mostly due to alcohol. Milk can vary in the same way, but of course that’s due to fat,” says Robinson.
1/4 cup each of skim milk, 2% milk, whole milk and heavy cream
Taste the milk in ascending order of richness, beginning with skim and ending with heavy cream, considering the texture of each and the sensation in your mouth. The skim milk should dissipate very quickly; the cream will coat your tongue.
1. Northern Italian Pinot Grigio: 2011 Tiefenbrunner
2. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: 2011 Kim Crawford Marlborough
3. White Burgundy: 2010 Domaine Faiveley Bourgogne Blanc
4. Barrel-fermented Chardonnay: 2010 Rodney Strong Sonoma County
1. Valpolicella: 2011 Tedeschi Lucchine
2. California Pinot Noir: 2010 Dutton Goldfield Azaya Ranch Vineyard
3. Chianti Classico: 2009 La Maialina
4. Zinfandel: 2010 Ridge East Bench
Tannins are compounds in grape skins, seeds and stems that contribute to wine’s structure, complexity, texture and ageability—especially red wine. Tannins create a drying and slightly bitter sensation in the mouth, usually toward the back of the tongue. Tannic wines pair especially well with rich foods and substantial meat dishes because they cut through fat; fat also softens the perception of tannin, making the wines more approachable.
3 black tea bags
Pour 8 ounces of hot water into each of the mugs. Place one tea bag in each of the mugs and start a timer. After 2 minutes, remove the bag from the first mug; after 4 minutes, remove the bag from the second mug; and after 8 minutes, remove the final tea bag. Let the tea cool.
Taste the teas in increasing steep-time order, swishing the liquid around in your mouth before swallowing. Notice how the teas are perceptibly more astringent as the steeping time increases.
1. Beaujolais: 2010 Potel Aviron Côte de Brouilly
2. California Merlot: 2009 Simi Sonoma County Merlot
3. Bordeaux: 2010 Château Bellevue Bordeaux Supérieur
Acidity in wine comes from the natural acids (tartaric, malic, etc.) in the grapes themselves, or acids that are added during the the winemaking process. The acidity in grapes varies greatly depending on the variety, as well as sun exposure, climate and the soil in the vineyard; grapes grown in cooler areas tend to have higher acidity. When drinking a wine, you’ll feel the effects of acidity mostly on the sides of your tongue. Overly acidic wines will cause almost a stinging sensation or taste sour.
Acidity makes your mouth water, cuts through the fat in rich foods and refreshes the palate.
Five 4 ounce glasses of water
Set aside the first glass of water.
Squeeze the juice of 1/4 orange into the second glass; into the third, squeeze the juice of 1/4 grapefruit; into the fourth, squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon; into the fifth, squeeze the juice of 1/2 lime.
Taste in that order, starting with a sip of plain water, to experience increasing levels of acidity. Experiment by adding more juice to each glass to see how the acidity increases. Notice the point at which the juice becomes too sour.
1. Marsanne: 2011 Qupé
2. Sauvignon Blanc: 2011 Brander Santa Ynez Valley
3. Muscadet: 2011 Michel Delhommeau Cuvée St. Vincent
Sweetness in wine is measured by the amount of residual sugar (RS) in the liquid after fermentation. “Sweetness can only come from one thing in wine, and that’s sugar content,” says Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm. Acidity can mask some of the sweetness in wines by balancing out the sugar, as in German or Alsatian Riesling. Sugar can also contribute to a wine’s body and texture.
16 ounce glass with 8 ounces of water
1 cup of sugar
Squeeze the juice of the lemons into the water and stir.
Taste the mixture; it will be very tart.
Stir in sugar 1 teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition. You should notice when the juice achieves the right level of sweetness and balances the acidity of the lemon.
1. Dry Riesling: 2010 Robert Weil Kiedrich Turmberg Trocken
2. Off-dry Riesling: 2011 Hexamer Kabinett
3. Sweet Riesling: 2010 Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese
A wine’s flavors come from the grape variety, as well as the climate and the amount of sun exposure and type of soil in the vineyard. Different winemaking techniques will extract various flavors, too.
The truth is, everyone smells and tastes different aromas and flavors in wine. It’s a very subjective judgement. That said, the more tasting experiences you have, the more easily you’ll be able to pick out those flavors. Having your own flavor vocabulary can come in handy when ordering wine from a sommelier or talking with a salesperson at a wine shop—and, most importantly, when pairing wines with food.
Orange Blossom Water
Put on the blindfold and have someone set out the aromatic items in front of you in any order.
Smell each item. “Aroma accounts for the majority of our taste, anyway,” says Bjornholm. Not only will this exercise give you a better idea of what you like, but it will also increase your Rolodex of flavors to have on hand when tasting.
1. Loire Cabernet Franc: 2011 Chais St. Laurent Chinon (sage)
2. Moscato d’Asti: 2011 Bera (orange-blossom water)
3. Australian Riesling: 2011 Rolf Binder Highness Riesling (lime zest)
4. Gewürztraminer: 2010 Lucien Albrecht Réserve (lychee)
5. Zinfandel: 2010 Foxglove (raspberry)
6. California Cabernet blend: 2009 Justin Isosceles (cassis)
7. Red Burgundy: 2009 Pierre Morey Monthelie (mushroom)
8. Côte Rôtie: 2007 E. Guigal Brune et Blonde de Guigal (bacon)
9. German Riesling: 2011 Christoffel Erdener Treppchen Kabinett (rock)
10. Left Bank Bordeaux: 2008 Château Malartic-Lagravière (pencil shavings)
Oak barrels used in winemaking develop their toasty, caramelly, vanilla flavors from being fire-charred. The barrels can be toasted to different levels, depending on the winemaker’s preference; those barrels can hold wine while it ferments or while it ages. Some producers favor old oak over new oak because its effect on a wine’s flavor, tannins and structure is more subtle.
Box of Cheerios
Crush up Cheerios and smell them. According to Joshua Wesson, the toasty, wheaty notes of the cereal are very similar to those in oaked white wine.
Skewer a marshmallow and roast it over a flame on a gas stove until it’s charred. “In red wines, oak leaves the impression of campfire smoke or the smell of a burnt marshmallow,” Wesson says.
1. Chablis: 2011 Jean-Marc Brocard Domaine Sainte Claire
2. White Burgundy: 2010 Joseph Drouhin Meursault
3. California Chardonnay: 2010 La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
1. Sicilian Frappato: 2011 Tami
2. Chianti Classico: 2009 Rocca delle Macìe
3. Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: 2009 Groth
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