How to taste wine, and separate cinnamon from clove, women from the men, etc.

Wines at Lodi ZinFest

Wines at Lodi ZinFest

Wine tasting, as most people would tell you, can be difficult (please see Wine 101:  tasting and talking).  But here’s one thing most wine experts agree on:  women make better wine tasters than men.

A lot of it is cultural:  more women than men, to begin with, cook meals in kitchens, and being able to distinguish smells – which in foods and wines are what constitute “flavor” – is key to being able to cook well.  Many men, of course, also cook well (needless to say, most restaurant chefs are males).  Thus, many men taste wine just as well as women.

Lodi wine lovers

Lodi wine lovers

However, there is one thing about most men that can’t be helped:  they tend to be, well, like “men.”  That is, macho.  There is a famous American importer of French wines named Kermit Lynch who first openly discussed the “excess baggage” of men’s macho-ness.  In an October 1999 issue of Food & Wine Lynch was quoted to say, “Men seem to believe that they are wine experts just because they are men.  When they stick their nose into a glass of wine they think it would be unmanly to say something wrong or stupid.  So they get uptight.  It is difficult to taste properly when you are uptight…

Sommeliers tasting in vineyard

Sommeliers tasting in vineyard

“As I have witnessed so many times, a woman tends to stick her nose in a glass and say the first thing that pops into her head, fearlessly, and it is amazing how often such spontaneous responses are appropriate and interesting.  Women approach wine with their noses wide open, and the directness of an un-self-conscious reaction can be refreshing.”  Why is knowing this important?  If you happen to have a more open, “woman’s” feel for wine — whether you are a woman or a man — then it might make sense to gravitate more towards advice dispensed by a female wine journalist, or to wines crafted by a woman-winemaker.  Just sayin’…

Lynch also mentioned the fact that “almost all American males think a wine has to be big to be good, while to most women a wine’s size has nothing to do with quality.  Here is the naked truth: the size or body of a wine is important only insofar as it relates to the dish it accompanies.  You wouldn’t select a light wine with dinosaur stew and you wouldn’t want a big clunker with oysters, for example.”

Besides the fact that we are often handicapped by our sex, why is wine tasting so hard?  For most people, women and men alike, it’s the challenge of being precise.  You can, for instance, correctly describe a Zinfandel, virtually any Zinfandel, as “berryish.”  That’s cool, but what kind of berry distinguishes one Zinfandel from another?  The goal of tasting Zinfandels, after all, is to be able to describe what makes one Zinfandel different from another – otherwise, it wouldn’t matter which Zinfandel we decide to buy and enjoy.

The problem is that when we see a purplish-ruby colored Zinfandel in a glass, we don’t see a blackberry, or raspberry, strawberry, cherry, or blueberry, whatever – we have to use our sense of smell to make the distinction.  And to make that distinction, we have to have a vivid memory of the right kind of berry stored away in our mind, ready to be pulled out and consciously explicated like a card from a deck.

But there’s no need to feel bad if you feel that you’re a little lacking in this department.  There is a professional French Perfumer named Alexandre Schmitt who often visits the West Coast to teach winemakers how to distinguish wine aromas.  Monsieur Schmitt charges $700/person for two days of instruction, which basically entails the continuous smelling of small strips of paper soaked in various scents.

Wine lovers at ZinFest Wine School

Wine lovers at ZinFest Wine School

Schmitt is a harsh but patient instructor:  when presented with two strips, a winemaker might be asked to identify the smells.  If the two strips represent some kind of citrus, one will smell strongly acidic, almost bitter and animal-like – and this one will turn out to be lemon.  The other strip will smell sweeter and less acidic, with a slight soapy greenness, which the winemaker learns is a lime.  It comes as no surprise that most winemakers have never been tested like that.  Therefore, most winemakers cannot readily distinguish a lime from a lemon purely through the sense of smell — like anyone else, they have to pick this up from experience.

Then it gets harder:  Schmitt will go on to present strips soaked in liquefied essences of lemon verbena (a green, astringent citrus smell), lemon grass (leafy citrus, like herbal tea), grapefruit (another soapy, bittersweet citrus), orange (citrus with white flowers), and bergamot (soapiness combined with both peppery spice and dusty drawer smells).  Without visual aids helping to identify all these types of citrus-like smells, distinguishing these scents from a glass of wine with any degree of precision becomes almost accidental.

But if you happen to be, say, a habitual drinker of Earl Grey tea, which is spiced with bergamot, then there is a good chance that you can identify the smell of bergamot.  If not, you are really smelling bergamot for the first time.  Ah, but here is the value of being able to identify bergamot:  the smell of this type of citrus happens to be one of the aromatic descriptors associated with the famous Portuguese red wine grape, Touriga Nacional.  If you understand begamot, you can better understand wines made from Touriga Nacional.

Tasting at ZinFest Cooking School

Tasting at ZinFest Cooking School

One other thing Monsieur Schmitt teaches about smells:  it is not true that wine sensations detected by the tongue – things like acidity (tartness) and tannin (bitterness) – cannot be smelled.  The fact is, says Schmitt, “We cannot separate the sense of smell from sense of taste.”  The accumulation of all sensations in our memory bank – that is, our syncretic perception – is how we develop our olfactory system from the moment we become conscious human beings.  This is why the rich smell of oak is often associated with a good Cabernet Sauvignon — it reminds many of us of, say, our first visit to a Napa Valley winery, where Cabernet Sauvignon is “king.”

At Michael David's "Reggae & Rhone"

At Michael David’s “Reggae & Rhone”

Why are many of us attracted to Chardonnays that taste as rich and fat as butter, with pungent toasty-smoky aromas?  Well, butter reminds us of movie theaters and popcorn, and the toasty smell of barrel aged Chardonnay often has a distinct similarity to the smell of hot dogs steeped in hot water in baseball stadiums — and who doesn’t love a good movie or ballgame?  This is also why some of us cannot smell, say, a lime without also immediately thinking of one sweaty, delirious night in a gritty Mexican border town – including the sound of música norteña, and/or the laughter of a dark eyed señorita, the pain of a tattoo needle, sour and earthy, salty tastes on the tongue, and the sweet, solvent smell of tequila.

Further demonstrating the syncretic nature of perception, Schmitt introduces winemakers to the smell of fennel, which is a natural, floral, anise-like smell; and contrast this with the smell of black licorice, a confectionary’s scent manufactured by combining anise with caramel and a woodsy molecule.  After this, he demonstrate other smells in the “anise family,” including tarragon, dill, licorice, basil, and caraway – each one similar but distinctly different.

Then Schmitt will move on to maltol (a burnt caramel-like vanillin molecule, common in oak barrels), and contrast this to furanéol (coconut butter-like vanillin, also common in oak aged wines); cinnamon as opposed to clove (two distinct smells often cited together by wine tasters, even though they are two completely different things); jasmine compared to gardenia and orange blossom; and then smells of walnut, fig, coffee, almond, maple, honey, fenugreek, and more, much more – many of these smells conjuring up some kind of syncretic memory, even when they cannot be precisely identified.

“It is not surprising,” says Monsieur Schmitt, “that wine tasters can experience very similar feelings but express different judgements.”  This is why, ultimately, the only valid judge of any wine’s quality is yourself:  it’s what you bring to each wine that really matters, which is why in the end you are the only one who can decide whether a wine is really good, or not-so-good.

Tasting at Macchia Wines

Tasting at Macchia Wines

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