wine wheel 2
Half of wine-tasting is 80 percent smell, to abuse a quote from Yogi Berra. Discussing wine means discussing smell, and our sense of smell through the ages has served both to please and to warn.
It is probable that wine-tasting was originally not so much about pleasing us as it was about warning us. In the olden days (which includes the era from the Enlightenment to the early part of my adult life), getting a hold of a spoiled, damaged bottle of wine was not uncommon. These days, better storage, refrigerated shipping, cleaner winemaking and global competition have all contributed to consistent quality, most noticeably in the past 20 years.
But caution is still important—it pays to look at wine and smell it before drinking. Knocking back two-and-a-half ounces of a badly-oxidized or spoiled wine has the same punch as a mouthful of clabbered milk: Once you do it you will make bold efforts not to do it again.
So assuming Wine Caution has been with us since the dawn of man, when was the birth of Wine Appreciation? That is, when was that moment when people suddenly stood around with their wine glasses in hand and looked at each other and went “wow”?
We know that Wine Appreciation existed at the time of Christ, because it is right there in John 2: 1-11: When Jesus turned several urns of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, the head steward commented to the host that the quality of Jesus’s batch was noticeably, maybe incredibly, better than the previous wine that had been served. He also complimented the host for saving the best for last.
It is evident then, that when they served Jesus’s wine at the wedding, biblical people experienced wine appreciation: They stood in a circle and swirled their wine and looked at each other and went “wow,” or its Aramaic equivalent.
The biblical account is not the first. This next tale dates back to at least the eighth century B.C.:
After the one-eyed giant imprisoned the Greeks in his cave and then dined on two of Odysseus’ sailors, Odysseus informed the Cyclops that the purpose of his visit had been to exchange wine for information and assistance and that the Cyclops had been an unsatisfactory host. The Cyclops said he would do better (he didn’t) and took a large bowl of wine from Odysseus and drank it down, proclaiming it “delightful,” and acknowledged that the quality of the Greeks’ wine was far better than his own: “Among us Cyclopes the fertile earth produces rich grape clusters, and Zeus’ rain swells them; but this is a taste from a stream of ambrosia and nectar.”
The Cyclops proceeded to toss back three more of the large bowls of wine, got drunk, threw up and passed out. Then Odysseus put out the Cyclops’ eye with a wooden stake.
For many, wine descriptions such as “wow” and “delightful” do not cut it. Nor does “sublime,” “wonderful,’ or “luscious.” The culinary experience, unfortunately, is necessarily described in emotional terms because taste and smell have a very limited vocabulary.
In the movie “Pulp Fiction” there is a scene where Samuel Jackson conducts what can only be generously described as a “hamburger tasting.” He picks up a burger, asks where it came from (it was a Big Kahuna burger), comments on its overall appearance, describes what he sees, smells it, takes a very appreciative bite and then passes judgment, saying something like, “Mmmm … Now that is one tasty burger!”
Then he asks to borrow a tasty beverage to wash it down, recites scripture and then, like Odysseus, dispatches the enemy. But before the gratuitous violence, the moment is pure Hamburger Appreciation.
Jackson’s comments only connect with us because we are all aware of the taste and smell of a fully loaded hamburger. But what if we weren’t? Like Sam Jackson’s “tasty” burger, much wine writing over time has used emotional language that tells us nothing other than that the writer had a good time.
Smell is the most primal of the senses, while language, in evolutionary terms, happened only yesterday. Our sense of smell is processed deep and low on one side of the brain, but objective language occurs in the other hemisphere and they have no direct connectors. Consequently, human smell offers no innate vocabulary, just subjective terms: Delicious, flavorful, disgusting, awful.
The human brain long ago pushed smell into second-string duty, meanwhile elevating sight and sound to starting positions. Consequently, we have not one but two complete languages, each, for sight and for sound.
For sight, our artistic vocabulary includes the color wheel and measurements of shade, tint and hue. If that were not enough, science also quantifies light rays and the color spectrum.
For sound, the musical scale pairs with dynamic notations, and science also has pitch-and-volume equivalents called hertz and decibels. But while my dog can smell the perimeter of my yard and somehow fully understand the activity of all dogs, cats, rodents—and I’m not sure what else—throughout the neighborhood, human smell is an under-studied, subliminal, primal experience. It has no expression significantly more specific than the word “Yum.”
Therefore the human condition, alas, is to taste something but not be able to describe it. Pretty frustrating. We smell and register a wine as great and complex, and there is a special aroma there that we can’t put our finger on. Then someone will say the magic word—say, cinnamon or nutmeg—and we’ve got it. That’s it! These objective terms are not automatic; it is learned behavior, like throwing a baseball or playing the drums.
Connecting a smell to a word is not so much a cheat sheet as it is a road map. We look at food or flowers and have an expectation of how that item will smell and taste; if we hide a flavor somewhere other than expected, the connection can be elusive.
Bad smells are equally difficult to pinpoint without training: Knowing why a wine is bad is economically important to wine-makers and merchants because the smell will define the cause of the spoilage and reveal the culprit. Dirty sock aromas? If excessive, this often points to a dirty barrel. Smell of band-aids or manure? The wine has been infected by a nasty wild yeast called Brettanomyces during winemaking.
What if the wine smells like a wet dog? That wine is “corked.” The bottle has been contaminated by the compound trichloranisole, which was introduced to the wine after riding piggy-back on an infected cork.
There are many evil agents out there, but the most common by far is good-old air: A wine becomes stale and dead, then brown and spoiled, the longer it is exposed to oxygen. A poor cork is usually the culprit when you open a brown, muddy wine that smells like raisons, mud and mildew. If you want to know what exposure to air can do, pour a glass of milk and set it in the refrigerator overnight. When you come back to it, the milk will not be spoiled, per se, but it will be stale.
So if half of wine-tasting is 80 percent smell, what about the other four senses?
The sense of touch is important when talking about body. The body of the wine is the mouth-feel. Light-body feels like skim milk on the mouth, medium-body like 2 percent milk, and full-bodied can go from a whole milk feel to almost half-and-half.
Sound? Listen when you remove the cork. If you hear a firm pop when the cork breaches the bottle, this is evidence of a well-preserved wine. Listening to the sizzle of Champagne bubbles is just fun.
Sight helps us to both anticipate and evaluate. Pour it up and hold it to the light. You can see the body of the wine. Is it clear and bright? That is a good sign, while grainy or cloudy can indicate yeast residue or other contamination. Pretty is good: The color will be white to bright yellow for a white wine and ruby to garnet for a red. Color also is an indicator of age. Brighter is newer, brown on the edges indicates age.
Swirl it in the glass. Does the wine have legs (slow, thick teardrops that trickle down the glass)? This indicates both fuller body and higher alcohol content.
Smell the wine. A few short sniffs register twice as much information as one long one (think of your dog at mealtime and do what he’s doing).
Now it is time to taste. But remember that most of taste is really smell. Your mouth will perceive the pucker of the tannins, the sour of the acids or the sweet of any residual sugar, the savor of dark fruit and the burn of the alcohol, but the rest happens in your nose.
The “attack” is the first impression in the front of your mouth and you will be hit with alcohol, acid, fruit, tannin, or a combination thereof. In your mouth you are dealing with taste, touch and smell all at once.
Experience the finish when you swallow. The finish can be everything from non-existent to long-and-amazing. (Long and amazing is better.)
So is all this worth it? With a decent wine it is, and after the initial swallow you will be pleased to realize there sits the whole rest of the bottle. And if you are lucky, a 20-ounce, hickory-charred, medium-rare T-Bone.
Paul Hatcher is a Certified Specialist of Wine, an industry designation from the Society of Wine Educators in New York. By day, he is a partner in the Chattanooga law firm of Duncan, Hatcher, Hixson and Fleenor.