Wine Sense

How do we appreciate wine?

One of the most important aspects of taking a wine course is the opportunity to understand better what you like in wine so you have an easier time finding more wine to like. That seems pretty straightforward, but it’s a concept with layers. There is understanding the elements of wine and understanding how they go together; there is understanding personal preference as an element separate from the “chemistry” of wine, and then, there is the incredibly nuanced skill at remembering what you taste.

The elements of taste

Taste is inextricably linked with two things: smell and memory. The taste buds on our tongues can only sense sweet, sour, salty and bitter - it is the sense of smell that fills in all the gaps to make that slightly salty and very sour prickle on the tongue recognizable as lemon juice. Try tasting a glass of wine while holding your nose and you’ll see how dependent you are on your sense of smell. Try doing it blindfolded and it’s even harder because we are also dependent on our vision!

Aromas and flavors become increasingly easy to pin down as you gain more experience tasting wine because you build up a mental equivalent of “muscle memory” - associations that help you remember an elusive smell. Those associations are powerfully linked to memory. I can “know” that strawberry is a bit fuller and less acidic, less metallic and less green/herbal than the very similar aroma of raspberry. However, what seals the association for me is actually a memory from childhood, when I was learning to cook with my great-grandmother and we picked strawberries and cooked them into jam. The heady aroma of cooked strawberry is baked into some part of my brain and I think I draw on that memory as much as my knowledge of the chemistry of aroma when I sense strawberry in a glass of grenache, or recognize it in the background in a pinot noir. 

Familiar vs. Out of Context

Differentiating the aromas of strawberry and raspberry is very easy when you are looking at the fruit, but blindfolded with only your nose to guide you, it’s a different prospect altogether. This part takes practice, just as telling lime from lemon and lemon from grapefruit takes practice. These are all fruits most of us encounter regularly and we can easily make the jump from a fruit bowl in the morning, or strawberries on cereal or a lemon wedge to squeeze on fish to finding that aroma in a glass - the context is similar to smelling a wine glass. It’s a different  matter when you are smelling something out of context - say, picking up green pepper or freshly cut grass when you smell a glass of sauvignon blanc, or leather or rose petals or tar when you are smelling a classic nebbiolo.

Then too, individual experiences play a big part in this process. What I may interpret as golden apple may strike you more as pear, especially if you haven’t eaten a lot of apples but had pears when you were young. I have Cuban friends who insist the fruit I call a lime is in fact a lemon, because in Spanish it is a “limón.” The yellow lemon I know so well doesn’t really exist in Cuba. When pressed, a Cuban Spanish-speaking friend (and often, my editor) allows that she will call it a “yellow lemon” (which to me is redundant) or, in a pinch, a “limón amarillo.” Trying to distinguish citrus aromas with these friends is quite an adventure over a bottle of wine!

Tasting Better

My best advice? Spend a little extra time in the produce section of your favorite market. When you cut up vegetables for lunch or dinner, keep a piece aside to smell in isolation later. Look up aroma associations for favorite grapes, and have some of those associated items on hand the next time you have a glass of wine - have a plate with green pepper, asparagus, grapefruit peel and a little bit of passion fruit nectar nearby when you get out your next bottle of sauvignon blanc. You will have fun (despite the curious looks from your friends and family) and you may be surprised at how quickly your are able to make associations in the future.

Then, join me for a wine course and I’ll help you add some structure to the process, as well as help you with the completely learnable skill of taking good tasting notes that will help you dramatically in finding more wine to love! I'll also show you how another kind of memory comes into play - a few examples in my next post on Thursday.