So you want to be a Somm: A journey to wine snobbery
Level 1: Part 2
When was the last time you heard someone say with glee, “I’m getting cat pee. Yeah, that’s it. Cat pee!” then turn to see them sipping from a glass filled with a light straw-colored liquid? Well, it happens, and it’s not as odd as it sounds...unless they are actually sipping cat urine, then it’s just gross. Now, if you have experienced that, chances are you are either hanging out with too many veterinarians who are way too into their work, or you are at a wine tasting.
Funny thing about calling these things wine “tastings.” See, experts believe that smell makes up to 90 percent of the sense of taste (and experts are 100% right, 75% of the time). How they come up with that number is a mystery, but I’m good with it, having learned that by carefully remembering being forced to swallow icky cough medicine as a child and having my mom tell me to hold my nose so it wouldn’t taste so bad. Yep. If I held my nose, I only tasted 10% of the stuff that made me want to puke 100% of the time. Yay Science!
You see, people can really only taste five basic things; sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and something called umami, which is much better described as a sense of the savory. Everything else comes from the schnoz. When you taste, you are actually smelling first, and most.
In not-so-technical terms, the nose is simply an interface between your body and the outside world. Recent studies, though, have determined that the human nose can register over one trillion different odors. Again, how they come up with that number is weird and not really worthy of discussion in an article that is really about drinking. The downside of that is that we just can’t process that many in our little brains. More sciency stuff tells us that we can only remember somewhere between 100 and about 10,000 different smells, depending on age and experiences. Sounds like a lot, but it’s not a trillion. And all those smells you remember aren’t general fact based elements. There isn’t one law of what one thing smells like. If you smell something, it is you creating subjective impulses and associating them with whatever it is you are smelling. Get it? It’s complicated, but it’s just smelling.
Our minds are tricky when trying to decipher smells. As with most other elements of life, context is everything. It’s really easy to go grab a Hershey’s Kiss, tear open the foil, shove it up your nose and smell cocoa. That doesn’t take much skill. You saw the chocolate and knew what to expect. It takes something much more to look at a glass of luscious purple liquid, swirl it around, dive your nose into the glass, take a big whiff and get your brain to forget the context and smell cocoa. Well, actually, it might take less, as in less preconception.
Wine is made of fermented grape juice. We all know that. But that fermented grape juice, depending on the mix of countless factors that include, but are in no way limited to, weather, dirt, sunlight, grape type, location, winemaking style, etc., can give off odors (and therefore flavors) that can range from the common to the unusual. And before you can learn to truly taste wine like a pro, you must learn how to smell wine like a pro. You must be able to bypass your preconceptions of context and smell what isn’t really physically there. You must be able to see a glass of grape juice in your hand, inhale and get select elements of different fruit, berries, oak, vanilla, smoke, bacon, matches, butter, honey, rubber, leather, pepper, licorice, mint, fig, prunes, boiled cabbage, asparagus, grass, cardboard, cow poop or the bottom of your dad’s loafers. You really want to be a wine snob? Then you better be able to close your eyes (physically or metaphorically) and get a few of these. “I’m getting a faint hint of cow poop on my dad’s old loafers...oh, and pork fat. Yeah. Pork fat.”
Of course, there are basics to learn. It’s not all out in the pasture for blind discovery. Fruit. Wood. Dirt. White wines will usually have elements of citrus. Red wines will smell of different berries. Oak barrels add vanilla and butter to white wines. Learn the basics. If you know that an Australian Shiraz generally has elements of black cherry, bacon and cocoa, then it will be easier to discover them on your nose when they are present. After that, you’re on your own to develop and use your experiences to evolve your odor pallet.
Only when you can distance yourself from context and tap into that wealth of odor memory can you grab a glass of 2012 Cuvaison Béton Sauvignon Blanc, fermented in concrete eggs, and get what Winemaker Steven Rogstad says, are hints of "lemon chiffon, kiwi, laurel and beeswax on the nose...." Or, as an aspiring wine snob says, “I’m getting cat pee. Yeah, that’s it. Cat pee!” Then, drink it.