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Key components of wine: aroma and taste

Wine aroma kit
Wine aroma kit
Bob Galivan, Wine Awakenings

Società Dante Alighieri started its Fall Wine Series this past Friday, at the Whole Foods Store in Coral Gables. This year, instructor Steve Stein (and in full disclosure, your humble author), introduced a new class focusing on wine’s key components: aroma and taste.

The “nose” or aroma of a wine is one of the key factors in the sensory experience of wine. The design of the glass forces the aroma of the wine into your nasal cavity, and the retro-nasal aspect of any compound placed in the mouth, come together to create a very nose-oriented sensory experience in wine tasting, and wine drinking. The idea behind the class was to force students to focus specifically on the aroma, and (to a lesser extend) the taste, of a wine.

For aroma, the Dante obtained two wine aroma kits from Wine Awakenings, a Canadian company introducing a series of wine-related products to the American market. Each kit consists of a selection of aromas specific to a style or varietal of wine. Our kits focused on the generic white wines and red wines, but the company has kits specific to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Ice Wines, and a kit devoted to wine faults, such as brett or corkage. The company is planning to introduce a new kit, targeted at wine novices, called Wine Expert in a Box.
Each kit contains 12 aromas. Cassis, cherry, cigar box, earthy, gamey, leather, licorice, mocha, cedar, plum, raspberry, and violets, were in the red kit. The white kit contained apple, butterscotch, citrus, grass, honey, melon, mineral, cedar, peach, pear, rose, and vanilla.

The idea of the kits is to use the vials of scent to familiarize your nose with an aroma specific to a particular class or type of wine, by simply smelling a specific aroma vial. We adapted this by adding one drop of an aroma to four of five glasses of each wine (5 red, 5 white). We used aromas that were noted in the winemakers tasting notes for each wine, enhancing an aroma that was present in the wine. Cards were made up for each aroma (and one for the joker glass that was only wine). The students were then given a blank sheet of paper, and turned loose on the wines. The game was to identify the aromas in the wines. Overall, the students did very well. The aromas that were most confused were pear, melon, and peach, in the white wine.

The exercise really brought the importance of the aroma component wine to the fore, forcing students to focus on detecting a specific note in each glass. Identifying aromas in wine can be difficult, because the molecule that delivers the scent is present only as a top note; the underlying characteristics of a scent are not present in wine, so that the backbone of a scent that brings in to top of mind is missing. That creates a disconnect between the brain and the aroma being identified. A corollary would be the game “Name that Tune,” in which contestants must identify a song from just a few notes. Hearing a single note of a song often brings a sense of recognition, but without a few more notes, or a chord or two, your brain cannot make a connection. In a sense, you know that you know the tune, but you cannot bring up the title.

The second part of the class focused on taste; most know that the flavor of wine is tied heavily into the retro-nasal aspect of a wine when brought into the mouth. The tongue has long been believed only salty, sweet, bitter, and sweet notes in a taste, but in 1985, the term “umami” was chosen to describe the savory taste that comes from specific foods. Explaining umami is difficult, but an effective (and simple) example is to compare the mouth feel of a raw versus a microwaved mushroom slice. The microwaved slice gives a very good representation of umami.

The final illustration was the impact of fat on tannins. Using a bit of skirt steak, where ½ of the steak was salted, and the other not, students discovered that it is salt, more than fat, that impact tannins in wine. Tannins have long been thought to be tempered when they bind with proteins, but it turns on that the salt has a very big influence on how tannins are experienced in the mouth.

Overall, students were given quite a bit of paradigm-shifting experienced in the class, which should have a positive effect on their future wine-tasting experiences. It certainly illustrates the importance, and the difficulty, of identify aromas in wine.

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