Friday, April 6, 2012

Sniff, sniff...

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but what about wine?

Does cabernet present the same bouquet to every nose? More exactly, does it ring the same sensory bells in all of us? Anyone who has sniffed and sipped in company knows that cabernet can elicit associations as disparate as black tea and raspberries from knowledgeable people, and both can be right.

Many people taste wine the way they look at abstract art, making their own associations in what is a highly personal relationship. That's hooey, say the experts. Aromas in wine are the direct result of natural substances and their interaction and can be cataloged more or less like groceries. Recognition lies not in the ephemeral imagination but in knowledge of the actual, and in memory. Chardonnay that has undergone secondary fermentation contains some of the same substance that’s in milk: hence, it can accurately be described as "buttery."

While smell is a basic sensory perception, it’s also a tender and mysterious subject. Simply biting into a madeleine called forth the complex childhood of Marcel Proust reflected in Remembrance of Things Past. Such are the powers, and potential magic, of our fully-employed individual olfactories. It’s offensive, therefore, to tell someone they’re a kind of personal computer that requires only the proper statistical in-put to spread butter on their chardonnay.

Part of the problem is wine evaluators – and wine writers - who freely associate and then put forth a blizzard of descriptors. Such wanton nosing should be controlled, say the same experts. One of them, Ann Noble, who taught sensory evaluation at University of California at Davis, invented the Aroma Wheel which presented the one hundred most common aromas in groups making them easier to identify.

In on-going efforts to define terms, winemakers try to pin down the exact - that is, classifiable - smells and tastes in their wines to use as marketing tools. Years ago a group of Napa and Sonoma wineries adopted, after considerable research, strawberry, cherry and spice as flavors that distinguish their pinot noirs from the rest of the world's.

Regardless of the accuracy or the consistency of your nose, knowing some basics is important to your enjoyment of wine. One common confusion involves the distinction between sweetness and fruitiness. Many people reject riesling, for instance, as being sweet when in fact it displays the floral aromas and tastes of that grape but can have a crisp, dry finish.

Even without descriptors, you may detect a lot about quality just by swirling the wine up the side of the glass (to increase evaporation), and taking a few short sniffs (rather than a major inhalation), and concentrating. Initial impressions are the most revealing, so try to articulate and remember them. Then take a sip and move the wine around inside your mouth, but don't swallow it. Draw some air in through your lips and over the wine, close your lips and exhale through your nose. Finally, swallow.

Sounds tricky - and maybe silly - but you'll find that it enhances flavor. Finally, relax and enjoy the conversation - which is now probably about your bizarre behavior.

1 comment:

  1. Great article and wonderful stories.... chemicals or the molecules of smell (or taste) are not the only things that influence our experience... past experiences, how our neurons are wired, the environment in which we are swirling - much more than the molecules.