Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wine Fundamentals: Training the Nose

Just so no one is confused, we are not training the nose for an Olympic event. Rather, it’s a process of refining the sense of smell to identify the many aromas present in a wine’s nose or bouquet. The tried and not-always-true method of perception is to keep drinking wine and taking notes on what is perceived in the glass. This is only moderately successful. Consider if you define a scent as licorice, which is really cloves, and continue to misinterpret that scent with no checks on accuracy, you lock in the wrong indicator.

Communicating the Elements in a Bouquet
Another possibility is to check the wine label, hopefully, after you’ve made your notes or determination of the bouquet’s constituents. That requires the wine label notes be accurate, it also requires us to share the same palate with the writer. Both are compromises on accuracy. Reading the notes before sniffing can unduly influence what you then pick up in the bouquet. Yes, I’ve tried all these methods in the past.

What is needed is a standard reference that can be used to accurately identify each scent in a wine bouquet. Alternately, you could take a wine course to become a sommelier, but most people don’t have the time for that. Some scents, of course, are fairly obvious. The initial reaction we get on the bouquet, or the strongest, is often the main aroma element in a wine. It is the interplay of subtler aromas that require a precise catalog of reference scents. It also requires a standard naming convention so these elements are communicated to others.

The Wine Aroma Wheel
The wine aroma wheel, developed by Prof. Ann Noble of U.C. Davis and her class, was created to standardize scent designators to aid in communication. The wheel and its variants, work from the idea of defining scents by category and sub-category, represented by concentric circles on the wheel. Pie slices or quadrants then define a group of scents, represented by different colors. The innermost circle defines the category, such as fruity, herbaceous, or floral. The next circle further defines the category, such as fruity, which breaks down into dried fruit, berry, tropical fruit, etc. The outermost circle divides these even further, so that berry now sub-divides into red raspberry, red currant, strawberry, etc. Moving from the general to the specific is a logical way to approach, what at first may seem like an impossible task.

When checking a wine’s bouquet, the first impression on our nose is usually the strongest, because over time the scent moves to the background due to fatigue and adaptation. An example here might help. Recall going into a room with an unpleasant odor, and later not being aware of it, while someone else coming into the room later will say, “Yuch, what’s that smell?” We adapted to the smell, and fatigue of our scent sensors have dialed down the intensity. Those sensors are called the olfactory epithelium. Yeah, I’m sure you wanted to know that. In other words, the quicker we can identify a scent, the better before that initial impression fades away.

Wine Scent Kits
Another approach is to buy a scent kit, with concentrated aromas enclosed in capped jars. Mine has forty scents including subtle ones like truffles and amber. I suspect some wine writers use the term truffles because most people have never eaten one or have any idea what the scent is like. I’ve been sniffing the one in my kit and I’m still not sure. For the most part, however, using these kits makes it possible to memorize specific scents over time and apply that knowledge when detecting them in a wine’s bouquet.

It’s also possible to create your own wine scent kit. If you click on the wine aroma wheel URL above, it will link to the web portal that includes a description of how to use the wheel, or get cool aroma wheel t-shirts so you’re never without this helpful guide. Yeah, right.

There is also a link to download the user guide, which is free. Within the two page tri-fold booklet downloaded is specific information on how to create your own scent kit for white, red, and sparkling wines. Since my professional kit costs hundreds of dollars, this is an inexpensive way to be introduced to the wonderful world of wine scents. You may even be able to pick up that elusive scent of truffles. Salut!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Vine & Wine Dines

If that headline has you puzzled, it was done purposely. The MRG (Middle Rio Grande) chapter of the Vine & Wine Society held a wine dinner recently that celebrated New Mexico wines and wine makers. A number of organizations hold wine dinners for fund raisers or a thank you to members for their volunteer work. Few can do it with the style and enthusiasm of those in the wine industry. The Vine & Wine Society proved that once again.

The dinner was held in late November and featured the wines of Casa Rondéna. Since I’m also a society member, it only took me a millisecond to decide to RSVP. Casa Rondéna is one of the premier wineries in New Mexico, and John Calvin the owner also has the most beautiful premises for a winery in the state. The dinner was held in the Hyatt Tamaya Resort in Bernalillo at the Corn Maiden restaurant. If the wines served hadn’t enticed me, the venue sure would.

The appetizers included some outstanding cheeses before we sat down to dinner, and each course was well prepared, particularly the veal chop for the main course. The only problem was the wines were slightly out of synch with each course. The 2008 Viognier would have gone perfectly with the cheeses, but they were just a memory on my tongue by the time this wine showed up. That did not deter the enjoyment of each wine John had brought, however.

The 2005 Founder’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was big and rich enough to stand up to the best Napa Cabs. Even better, John lined up the 2006 Clarion blend of Temperanillo and Syrah with a dash of Cab, another favorite of mine, and his 2006 Meritage blend that wins converts all the time. Three very good reds for the main course presented an embarrassment of riches, but I managed to bear up. The dessert was topped off with the 2006 Animante, a ruby port made with the Cabernet Sauvignon grape rather than the ubiquitous Zinfandel of most California ports. Perhaps now you can see why I attended.

In case you aren’t familiar with the Vine & Wine Society, we provide support for both grape growers and wine makers. The annual NM State Fair wine competition is sponsored and judged by us. We are all wine lovers and enjoy the company of others who work with the grape and the vine, and a wine dinner is a great way to have that all come together. We seize any opportunity that includes sharing food and wine and the expertise that makes those possible. Please check out the link above for more information on our organization.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Gelfand Vineyards: A Paso Robles Treasure

In California, the Paso Robles area of the Central Coast has held a special charm for me for over two decades. During that time the number of wineries has multiplied faster than a cabal of Corrales rabbits. The village of Corrales where I live has a population of rabbits so numerous; driving there can take on the frenetic nature of dodge cars at an amusement park. Each year I return to Paso I discover a new favorite winery, and this year was no exception. Gelfand Vineyards was a recommendation of friend and fellow cyclist Ken McKenzie.

Ken had been sending some of my articles to Len Gelfand, who in turn suggested I stop by the winery on my next visit. Since I needed to check on my property in the nearby village of Cambria, the Thanksgiving weekend seemed appropriate. The back roads route to Gelfand executes several right turns on a road that continually changes names and then glides along on a narrow serpentine canter through fields and vineyards. The final patch climbs a single lane you pray you alone occupy.

Len met us at the rustic tasting room where we exchanged greetings. After a moment’s confusion over which McKenzie had recommended him and with my business card as a memory jogger, he made us feel right at home. Len also looks right at home here among his vines and wines, but came here after a career in insurance. That helped provide the funds, but the expertise came from fellow boutique wine makers and his determined research into enology. He has the cherubic countenance of a fit Bacchus, friendly and passionate about his wines. We quickly discovered why.

Before I do describe the wine, a caveat; Gelfand wines are not sold in stores, but are made primarily for their wine club members. Tasting is by appointment, and the limited production means the only guarantee of obtaining wine before it sells out is to join the club. After tasting the wines, my wife and I joined. Just about the swiftest wine decision I ever made.

Gelfand works with four wine grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. Single grape varietals and blends comprise the wine list. One of the most popular blends is their SFR red blend. When Len was pouring this wine at an event, an elderly couple asked him what the initials stood for. He pondered what to substitute for Sh- - Faced Red, its real designation, but before long the name slipped out and everyone was asking for this big, bold red wine.

Wine club members can also participate in the Annual Blending Party where SFR and their version of a Meritage wine, Ménage a Bunch, are concocted. The last three years participants braved 109 degree heat, but still kept coming back. Len showed us the setup where club members assist with the bottling as well. Think about how many wineries command that sort of loyalty.

Besides single-grape varietals of the four principal grapes and the two blends mentioned above, Gelfand also makes Cabyrah, a Cab/Syrah blend, Petit Cab a blend of Cab/Petit Sirah, and Lajur a select blend of their best grapes. Their Syrah Rosé is a dry rosé version that should attract red wine drinkers. They also do two Cabernet Sauvignon-based ports. One of which is called Sophie, named right after the birth of their grandchild. Our bottle of Sophie was cradled in my wife, Barbara’s arms until it could be sleepily laid to rest in our car.

All the wines are big, mouth-filling, and loaded with fruit. Many also rate a perfect 100 HDI, that’s Hammond’s Drinkability Index. These are the kinds of wine that invite you to sit back as one sip leads to another, and then one glass leads to another. Just make sure you’re at home before one bottle leads to another. Salud!