As previously mentioned, since the name of this column used to be “Tasting Wine,” it’s high time, after five years, to say something about the process of tasting wine. Last week, I left off with “the nose.”
The nose of a wine is how it smells. This is probably the most important aspect of wine tasting from an analytical point of view, as your sense of smell is what allows you to taste. Wine smells like a fermented beverage, but if you pay attention, you can find aromas of fruits, flowers, woods, spices, herbs, minerals and other earthy scents like mushrooms and leather.
All types of fruit aromas can be found in wines.
Bananas and other tropical fruits are common in chardonnay. Sauvignon blanc often smells like grapefruit, peach and melon. Viognier has the scents of apricots and oranges. Riesling is like green apples. And if you want to know what lychee nuts smell like, take a whiff of gewurztraminer. On the red side, pinot noir smells like red berries, especially strawberries and cherries. Cabernet sauvignon has more of a blackberry and cassis aroma. Merlot smells like plums. Syrah is reminiscent of blue fruits, boysenberries and blueberries, while grenache has more of a raspberry fragrance.
Wines also have floral aromas. Gewurztraminer has the perfume of tea rose. Grenache can smell like roses, but in a different way. Spice and herbal notes are common, like the black pepper of syrah or cinnamon of some zinfandels. There are earthy and minerally smells as well. Sangiovese is often reminiscent of tobacco, while the wines from Graves and Pessac-Leognan in Bordeaux can take on the aroma of wet pavement, a result of gravel-enriched soil.
When you smell a wine, there are certain aromas that will allow you to know how a wine was treated or made. Vanilla is a pretty good giveaway for oak treatment. If it has a dill, caraway seed or coconutlike smell, there’s a good chance that American oak was used. French oak smells more like caramel. If it’s toasty, then the wine may have been aged in heavier barrels. This is true for reds and whites.
The one word here that can’t be left out is “terroir.” This French word refers to the specific natural surrounding that affect a wine’s character. Terroir molds a wine and will give it unique characteristics. This is why two chardonnays made in the exact same way but grown miles apart might seem very different from one another.
There will be more on terroir and tasting in the final segment of this little detour next week. This week’s homework: Being that there is an abundance of produce, spend some time at the grocery store or farmers market smelling fruit.
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.
The finer points
Last week: Understanding the ambience
Today: How the taste is built
Next week: What to look for in taste