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Wine appreciation – it just takes practice | David White
"Aromas of cassis and boysenberry are accented by soft black tea and anise notes, while the palate is defined by caramel, vanilla, Baker's chocolate and intriguing layers of toasted bread and pie spices."
That's an actual tasting note on a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
If such descriptions make your eyes roll, you're not alone. Tasting notes can be quite bewildering -- and the vocabulary of formal wine analysis can make the process intimidating.
After all, what the heck is a boysenberry?
Fortunately, the science behind such narratives is easy to understand. And by identifying the aromas in your glass -- and then describing them -- you'll increase your appreciation of wine.
Smelling begins when chemical compounds are released by whatever it is we're smelling, stimulating nerve cells in the nose, mouth, and throat. Those cells send messages to the brain, where specific smells are recognized.
Grapes, like all fruits, produce aromatic compounds. The process of fermentation causes all sorts of chemical reactions, and those create even more aromas. Very often, that fermented grape juice will interact with grape stems, dead yeast, and oak during the winemaking process, resulting in an even more complex bouquet. As wine ages, aromatic changes continue to take place.
It's no wonder why some tasting notes read like grocery lists!
Detecting a wine's many aromas is just part of formal tasting; the next step is describing it. Here, things get tricky -- because all of us have our own olfactory memories. And we develop most of those memories as children.
What smells to like blueberry pie to one taster could easily smell like ripe blackberries to another. And neither person is wrong. We all have our own, unique stock of aromas in our memories.
Making matters even more confusing, people have varying sensitivities to different aromas. A taster that's very sensitive to mercaptans -- a wine flaw that manifests itself with aromas of onions and cabbage -- may find some wines undrinkable that others find delicious.
Evaluating wines seriously -- complete with your nose in the glass and thoughtful tasting -- opens up the entire world of wine appreciation. And it's not that difficult.
Next time you enjoy wine at home, pay attention to what you're smelling.
Wines from the New World -- countries like the United States, Australia, and Argentina -- tend to offer riper fruit aromas thanks to warmer growing conditions. Old World wines, on the other hand, are generally more restrained.
California Chardonnays, for example, are typically marked by notes of pineapple and melon. Chardonnays from France -- especially the region of Chablis -- present aromas of green apples, lemon, and lime.
Syrah offers a similar contrast. In Australia, the grape is normally used to produce deliciously hedonistic fruit bombs -- emitting gobs of ripe blackberries and licorice. French Syrah is typically marked by blueberries, meat, and black pepper.
Winemaking decisions also influence how a wine smells.
While fruit notes come from the grapes, a winemaker can impart "secondary" aromas like vanilla, chocolate, and coffee by using oak. That butter smell one so often encounters in California Chardonnay is the result of "malolactic fermentation," a process that's used to make wine softer and more accessible. This process is standard for most red wines.
Finally, a wine can offer "tertiary" aromas after bottle aging. These notes are often savory -- think mushrooms and hazelnuts.
Understanding all the nuances of wine may seem daunting, but all one needs is a sense of smell and taste, along with a strong streak of curiosity. Otherwise, wine appreciation just takes practice. So start drinking!
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.