The best way to learn the smell of bell pepper is to put one in the back of the fridge for a month, then cut it open and take a big sniff. That is the advice we were given at a tasting seminar a few weeks ago. In the seminar Master Sommeliers broke down by chemical and aroma how to identify wines. The smell of bell pepper in wine is caused by pyrazine, a chemical found in the Bordeaux grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. By smelling an aged (rotten) bell pepper we will be cementing a smell memory, making it easier to recall during blind tastings.
The smell of black pepper, found in Syrah and Zinfandel is caused by a chemical rotundone. I had a huge aversion to black pepper during both pregnancies and have avoided it since. So my smell memory for rotundone is non-existent. I’ve been snorting black pepper in my free time in order to cement that memory.
Analyzing the wine by its primary, secondary and tertiary aromas, then dissecting its structure is the most accurate way to identify it. But sometimes it feels like one is trying to identify a friend by taking inventory of his or her physical traits. ‘You have blue eyes and brown hair and are 5’7”, so you must be Rebecca,’ rather than just recognizing one’s friend when one sees her.
I have had so many Napa Chardonnays or ‘Cougar Juice’ as it is affectionately called, I just know it. Is it the nuttiness on the back of my throat from oxidation? Is it the ripe, tropical fruit? Is it the creamy leesiness or the malolactic butteriness? Is it the caramel and spice from the oak aging? No, it’s all of that and more. It’s everything together all at once.
“I always know a Chablis by the smell of chalk,” said my friend, Josh in our tasting group one day. I’ve always been stumped by Chablis. I don’t know what the chalky soils there smell like. But as I smelled the Francine et Olivier Savary Chablis I had a memory, not of soil, but of playing pool with my grandfather, holding the pool cue close to my face watching my grandfather take his shot, which he always made, and smelling the chalk on the cue tip. That’s the smell memory I will associate with Chablis.
Smell memory takes time to develop, and it is an important tool in identifying wine. But smell memory also needs context in order to be meaningful. Wine it seems is more than the sum of its parts.