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!

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