Friday, January 29, 2010

Making your Own Wine Aroma Kit

In a previous article, I mentioned one method of improving one’s wine nose by purchasing a wine aroma kit. That works for professionals, but the cost is probably a bit steep for the average wine drinker. The main benefit of an aroma kit is to sharpen the sense of smell to detect the myriad scents many wines possess, deriving more enjoyment, and solving the mystery of what is in the wine's nose. What we perceive through our sense of smell then pays off in the richness and depth of flavors we savor drinking the wine.

Wine Definitions
Bouquet as an industry term refers to the scents created during fermentation, such as the type of container and yeast employed, and the fermentation process itself, which has many variations. Bouquet also encompasses the type of oak and toasting level, and the time spent in barrel as well as bottle aging time. Most wine makers wait a few months before releasing freshly bottled wine due to bottle shock.

Contrary to what someone told me, you can't induce bottle shock by taking it as a prop to the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, although you may start a new trend. Some wines in Europe are not released until one or more years after bottling to permit enough time for the wine to settle and evolve. The type of cork, the bottling process, and other factors all make their contributions to what we call bouquet.

Aroma, on the other hand, refers to the varietal aromas that arise from the grape itself. The strawberry nose of a Sangiovese and the blueberry nose of an Argentine Malbec relate back to the type of grape, or grapes chosen to make the wine. You may have noted I specifically mentioned an Argentine Malbec. That relates to the affect of terroir on the grape varietal. Many Malbec wines from Argentina display blueberry in both the nose and palate. Palate refers to what we perceive once the wine is in our mouth.

Another way of explaining this would be to say the hint of cloves we picked up in a Chardonnay came from the wood, the pear and apple from the fruit, and the buttery notes from the secondary malolactic fermentation to which many California Chardonnay wines are subjected. We also would have learned something about how the wine was crafted, and all through the detection of our nose!

The Wine Aroma Wheel
One inexpensive aid to improving our “wine” nose is the wine aroma wheel developed by Dr. Ann Noble at U.C. Davis. It provides a wealth of wine information in one double-sided, plastic-coated card. It comes on a standard 8-1/2 x 11 sheet, not in the shape of a wheel in case you were considering using it as a Frisbee. The wine aroma wheel website contains a tutorial and a link to a PDF file of a 2-sided 3-fold brochure describing how to create your own tasting kit. For more information on the wheel and how to use it see here and here in my columns, where I’m known as the Albuquerque wine examiner. So many aliases, so little time to read all the stuff I do on wine, hmm?

The brochure discusses wine aromas and bouquet for red, white, and sparkling wines, as well as wine defects. For example, to create a set of white wine scents, begin with a base white wine. A mediocre inexpensive wine is best. Using sealable jars or spare glasses with covers to preserve the scents, add a few drops of brine from canned asparagus to generate that scent as found in some white and red wines. Do the same for the scent of cloves, adding a bit of clove to another container, but don’t leave it in too long. The vegetative scent of asparagus typically comes from the grape, and clove is a common trait of some types of oak, particularly American oak.

Along with all the interesting and clever methods listed in the brochure for trapping specific scents, it doesn’t hurt to periodically remind our sense of smell of what a fresh cut orange or pear smells like. Or dig into those jams in the fridge to recall what blackberries smell and taste like before spreading them on toast. With a little thought, you’ll come up with your own ideas on how to sharpen your senses of smell and taste. Soon you’ll be regaling your friends with your prowess at detecting the multitude of scents in a complex wine. Just don’t get too carried away as Paul Giamatti did in Sideways. You don’t need to make stuff up, there are plenty of pretenders already busy doing that. Salut!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How to Evaluate Wine without Drinking Wine

I’m guessing your first question about this title would be what’s the point? However, when I began doing wine talks at Albuquerque area libraries back in December, I knew alcohol could not be served, so I had to find a way to talk about wine and provide some kind of workshop. That was when I decided to purchase a wine aroma kit.

The Nose Knows
The tastes we discern in wine are triggered by what our nose, via the olfactory epithelium, detects in the aroma of wine, and again from the nasal passages in the back of the mouth after we sip the wine. The degree of sweetness, acidity, and mouthfeel we get from sipping wine, while all contributing to our enjoyment, are like black and white photography. It is the coloration our nose adds to the experience that make wine exciting.

It is the development of our sense of smell, identifying and categorizing the myriad of aromas wine contains that make each wine unique. The comment, “What is that scent?” occurs most when aromas are detected by an uneducated nose without a name to associate with a specific scent. Picking up the earthy scent of leather in a French Bordeaux has far greater weight when we recognize it as such and communicate that impression to others. That is part of the language of wine, and one of its greatest pleasures.

We can improve or train our nose best by identifying unique scents in wines. Some of these scents are discernable to most people, such as cherry or blackberry found in many red wines, or citrus aromas in white wines. But what about the scent of tobacco, leather, truffles, cinnamon and cloves? These aren’t always as easy to pick up, particularly when the scents are weak or illusive. Over time and many bottles of wine, many of these subtler scents will be detected, identified, and incorporated into our personal lexicon of wine aromas.

Wine Aroma Kits
This is where a wine aroma kit comes into play. A typical kit contains from ten to forty defined scents, such as those mentioned above. As each scent is numbered and associated with an entry in the accompanying manual, a scent can be learned over time, and detected and isolated in a wine’s nose. It is also possible to recall wines you’ve had that exemplify a specific scent. After diligent practice one can become a wine aroma detective and amaze their friends.

My own kit contains 40 bottles, each with a single defined scent. When I use these in my library talks, I select four scents for the class to identify. More than that number can overload the senses. For example, I’ll start a jar of leather scent going around the room, and only ask for guesses after everyone tries it. Most inexperienced wine drinkers will not guess correctly. Once I have revealed the scent, there are some looks of confusion, some of enlightenment. When I ask one member of the audience to sniff it again, they nod their head enthusiastically. Now that they know what the scent is, the brain reviews its memory of leather scents and more effectively registers that it is truly leather.

I might add that many of my attendees are wearing leather. After all, this is New Mexico, and we love leather goods. Imagine if that is the case how much trickier it would be to detect the scent of truffles? I’m referring to the edible fungi detected and rooted by pigs, not the chocolate confection. That scent is so subtle I think many wine notes writers just throw it in, knowing most people can’t identify it. I’m still having trouble with that one and I have the aroma kit!

Next time I’ll discuss how to make your own aroma kit in case the typical $200 price tag is a bit too steep for you. Salut!