Monday, April 4, 2011

Nose your Spring Fragrance

When speaking of aromas, wine blesses us with a myriad of fragrant bouquets. How to interpret these smells and identify them with savvy wine speak remains the elusive gift wine-o’s spend a lifetime attempting to master. So, what is in a nose of wine, and what does that really mean? Why do wine critics write florid descriptions in wine reviews that read to the tune of: soft, velvety, rich in chocolate, blackberry and smoky oak flavor? How does wine, an alcoholic beverage, exhibit flavors of fruit, spice, wood, herbs, and flowers?

First, let’s start with the primary organ of taste, your tongue. The human tongue detects five primary tastes—acidity, bitterness, saltiness, sweetness, and umami, or savoryness. When molecules from food or wine touch the palette, they bind to receptors specific to each taste. Acids set off sour receptors, sugars trigger sweet receptors, etc. With the survival of the fittest in mind, humans have evolved to like sweet tastes, since sugars/starches provide primary sources of calories. On the other hand, poisons taste bitter, so humans harbor distaste towards bitter flavors. Perceptions can be altered, though, and tastes can be acquired; the very phenomenon that takes place when an adolescent sips coffee or wine for the first time. Over time, as a youth matures and repeatedly exposes him- or herself to certain flavors, acquired tastes are born.

The tongue supplies only part of the story, the nose completes the picture with the sense of smell. Taste buds determine the degree to which something is salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or umami; but, the nose qualitatively assesses thousands of smells that the brain computes into words. Molecules giving rise to flavors and aromas are volatile, meaning they pass easily into the gas state. When you sniff or sip a wine, the volatile flavor molecules waft through your nasal passages to the olfactory bulb where they are interpreted. A wine becomes one dimensional if your sense of smell is incapacitated, like when you have a stuffy nose.

Putting the technical talk aside, this process fails to explain why aromas of chocolate, cherries and blueberries spill forth from a glass of Malbec. Little attention do we pay to the thousands of aromas we “visually” memorize. A vanilla bean smells like vanilla because an ester molecule called “vanillin” gives the bean its characteristic smell. When considering wines, the aromas depicted originate from the grape varietal itself, yeast fermentation and the chemical reactions incurred while wine ages in a bottle. The resulting aromas are the same compounds found throughout nature, just in smaller quantities, and out of context. Pass a blueberry plate under your nose before sniffing Malbec, your chances of identifying hues of blueberries will increase. But swirl a little Malbec without the presence of a blueberry plate and see if you pull out blueberry. It’s there, just out of our vernacular reach.

Aroma molecules in wine span the families of fruit, spices, herbs, flowers, minerals, earth, and more. Consider Sauvignon Blanc, for instance. This white wine commonly exhibits ester molecules that dominate the following organic forms of life: bell pepper, tomato leaf, asparagus, grapefruit, gooseberry and passion fruit. How to train your brain to identify aromas present in your glass remains the ultimate talent. Practice proves best. I recommend lots of wine tasting. Common aroma groups repeatedly occur in every grape species. For instance, Merlot gives plum, Cabernet Sauvignon boasts currants, Pinotage reveals tar, and Pinot Noir renders mushrooms and cherries. This month at Red, White and Bleu Wine Shop in Falls Church, I host the first aroma class of a series: Le Nez du Vin. Thursday evening April 21st feel free to attend the Spring Series. We will pair every one off and blind fold you for a short time to taste you on foods you can’t visualize: a brain boot camp of sorts! Spring aromas and flavors will be a focus. Fruits, greens, and herbs sourced from the local Farmer's Markets will be sniffed in their natural states, followed by a wine tasting of wines which exhibit the selected scents. Aroma education proves humbling, but great fun is definite! Phone the shop for more information 703.533.9463 or email me at