Smell Memory and the Autopsy of a Wine

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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 IMG_1212had 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.

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Finding the Marks

Pierre Sparr Alsatian Gewurz“Don’t use ‘apple’ or ‘white flower’ as a descriptor for a white wine,” a friend told me at a recent wine tasting.

“But, I always get ‘apple’ and ‘white flower’ in a white wine,” I responded, inadvertently answering my own unasked question.

“That is exactly why you shouldn’t use them as descriptors. They describe almost every white wine and don’t tell you anything about the grape. Be more specific. Is it a red, green or yellow apple? Is it an orange blossom or a gardenia?”

There is an apple tree in my yard. By mid-October, the apples that have dropped from it are on the very far side of ripe, not overly so, but just acetic enough. That deep, ripe, slightly tart smell that comes just before decay is an aroma I will always associate with the marrow of fall, the depth, the middle, the point at which the days are as chilly as the sun is bright.

The marks for an Alsatian Gewurztraminer, the aromas that distinguish it from other white wines are ginger and honeysuckle. I always do get those strong floral and spice aromas from the Alsatian Gewurztraminer. But the tell for me is the scent of a mid-fall apple that has ripened as far as it can ripen to an unmistakable tangy richness. Nobody reading my tasting sheet will know what ‘mid-October apple on the precipice of decay’ means. But I will know that it means Alsatian Gewurz.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; a Studied Tasting

Clos de La Vieille Eglise, 2008Part of the studies for any wine certification (really, the fun part) is the tastings. The various certification programs have made a science out of the tastings, completely deductive, not unlike playing the game Clue. If the fruit is ripe and the aromas are coconut, vanilla and baking spice, the wine is new world. If the ripe fruit is black like plum or black currant and there is a savory thyme or rosemary aroma, then it is a new world Cabernet Sauvignon. If the ripe fruit is red like raspberry or red currant and there is a mint or eucalyptus aroma then it is a new world Merlot. Old world Cabs have the same black fruit but that fruit is tart rather than ripe. The savory herbs are there along with fennel, pepper or mushroom. Old world Merlots are tart red fruits also with mint or eucalyptus along with olive and maybe some mushroom. Easy, right?

The first wine we tasted had both raspberry and black currant. I’ll need more clues. The fruit was definitely ripe, not tart at all. There were some herb aromas, but also, vanilla. The ripeness of the fruit and the oak told me it must be a new world wine. I was torn on the grape, but because the tannins were more velvety, I went with Merlot. I got the grape right, but unless this was Castillon, California, I missed the region. Clos de La Vielle Eglise, 2008, Castillon Bordeaux 90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Note to self; time in the bottle will soften the fruit.

The next wine, also presented red and black fruit, red currants and blackberries. The quality of the fruit was very tart. And there was both an herbal and vegetal quality to the wine. There was a dominant minerality and some wet leaf aroma. This had to be old world, with the tart fruit as well as the mineral and earthy aromas. And because of the herbal aromas and strong tannins, it must be a Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again I got the grape right, but missed the region. Los Vascos, Colchagua, Chile, 2011. Note to self; 2011 was a cool year for Chile, thus the fruit is not as ripe.

Wine number three was dominant black fruit, black plums with some blueberry. The fruit was not just ripe, but jammy. There were floral aromas of rose petal potpourri and the oak use was obvious by the coconut aroma. This had to be a warm climate, new world with the jamminess and and oak. And I should have gone with Cabernet Sauvignon because of the black fruit. But the tannins were so soft and lovely, I thought it had to be a Merlot. Starmont, Napa, 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. Note to self; go by the fruit, not the tannins when deducing the grape.

Our fourth wine had both red and black fruit, raspberries, red cherries, and black cherries. Again the fruit was jammy. This must be new world. There was a mint aroma along with chocolate, vanilla and toast. The mint told me Merlot, the chocolate, vanilla and toast told me oak, another sign of new world. There was, also a minerality to the wine, like iron, a telltale sign of a Washington State wine. Wildhaven, Horse Heaven, Merlot, 2013. When I filled out my sheet, however, I ignored the mint and called it a Cab. I did get the new world right. Note to self; don’t ignore what you are actually tasting.

In the end, I guessed Colonel Mustard with the candlestick but it was actually Miss Scarlet with the candlestick. I guess I’ll have to keep practicing!