Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Analyzing wine: Everyone gets better.

Sometimes I'm jealous of the casual wine drinker. They can just enjoy their wine like it's supposed to be. They don't have to analyze it to death with the hue and how acidic it is, what odors am I getting, what flavors am I getting, how's the finish, blah blah blah. They just need to know whether they like it or not. That sounds amazing.

Myself, being a wine professional, have to analyze the crap out of it. If somebody asks me about a wine I can't just say "It's awesome! You gotta try it!" because that's totally not helpful. Alright, I still tell them it's awesome but I at least have to describe it like I know what I'm talking about.

Today's blog is about identification of flavors and aromas. Chances are you know what a raspberry tastes like but can you pick it out, not knowing it's there, amidst other flavors?

You probably already know that your tongue can only taste salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (savory). The flavor sensations you get from eating and drinking are actually aromas that come from the mouth rather than the nose. Saliva activates a chemical change of said food or beverage and this is why its flavors can be vastly different than its aroma.

Smell is an amazing thing. It's extremely primal. It's our first and most personal sense, our most important survival tool, and the sense that is directly and deeply connected to our memory far more than any other. There's a Pixar movie called Ratatouille about a rat that wants to be a chef, and at the end of the movie the evil food critic tastes a plate of ratatouille that brings him back to his mothers cooking when he was a child. Every time I smell shaving cream I flash back to Camp Hawthorne's shower cabin where the air was always thick with the smell of shaving cream. Sometimes you may not even know what it is but a scent will hit you and suddenly you're back in Aunt Mildred's living room. Now, because of the movie, these "flashbacks" that are triggered by flavors and aromas are actually referred to as a "Ratatouille moment".

For the longest time I couldn't get floral aromas on a wine. I didn't know why, I just never smelled it when others did. To be perfectly honest I never "stopped to smell the roses" in a literal sense. Flowers always smelled like funerals to me and funerals suck. They brought me right back to the funerals of my grandparents, a Ratatouille moment that's just not appreciated. But it turns out that every time I thought "this wine smells like soap" or "this wine smells like moisturizer" others were saying  "this wine is really floral". What do soap and moisturizer try to imitate? Floral aromas. That was a mind blowing revelation when it hit me. But to this day my very first thought when tasting floral wines is still soap and moisturizer, yet I've trained myself to know what that means and from there I can differentiate roses from violets.

You can only identify what you know or have really given attention to. I had purposely ignored smelling flowers but I used soap every day so my brain had made its own unique association with a scent.  If a Moscato is pretty much apricot juice and you've never had apricot then how can you say it tastes like an apricot? Your brain is going to hook you up with the closest thing you know to apricot instead. The most frustrating thing is when you know what you're detecting but your vocabulary just isn't there. For example, maybe there's a rosemary aroma on a Cabernet but you're not much of a cook. It's killing you because you've smelled this aroma a million times but you can't place it. Now you've spent five minutes with your nose in the glass saying "What the hell is that???" I've been there many times and it's frustrating as all hell.

United Vacations

If you really want or need to learn how to describe a wine with comparison descriptors it's very important that you expand your association vocabulary by really starting to smell and taste those things and, as I say, "file them in your olfactory memory".

Pick up different kinds of berries each time you go to the market and really savor them with the intent of remembering what they're like. Later you'll find that Merlot is in the blackberries and blueberries. Smell the pencil you just sharpened (Cabernet Sauvignon), fresh plastic (Riesling), the ground near the tree in your back yard after it rains (Pinot Noir and Tempranillo). I grow my own tomatoes and I get the smell of the leaves on my hands a lot. I get fresh tomato leaf aromas in my beloved Cabernet Franc's all the time as well, and it's how I can identify that Cab Franc may be part of a blend.

Open your herb containers and take a big whiff of each one. One of my most favorite pick-ups I got during the time that I was initially training my palate was when I was making a taco kit one night and as soon as I added the pre-packaged seasoning to the beef in the pan this smell overcame the kitchen and I thought "Holy hell, there's waaaay too much cumin in this shit!" VICTORY! AND TACOS! And a cumin aftertaste that long outstayed its welcome.

You just have to pay attention, really. Don't take aromas and flavors for granted for awhile. Put out the extra effort to process them and file them.

Drink wine and see what you get. Don't read the stupid description on the back label until after you've written down your tasting notes. On second thought; usually those back label descriptions are a load of horse shit reaching for whatever they can to make a sale. Forget about them and check out some online reviews when you're done.

Trust yourself. Let your instincts put its work in. If something random comes to mind there's probably a reason for it.

Don't be shy about it. If you get goddamn Twizzlers don't be afraid to say you got goddamn Twizzlers. I've gotten "hot melted spearmint gum that you forgot was in your pocket all day" many times. And I will go to my grave saying that Bodegas Aalto Ribero del Duero smells like ruffled barbeque potato chips. TO! MY! GRAVE! Believe that.

It takes time. And a lot of work. But it's fun work. And as somebody once told me: "You will get better. There is nobody who doesn't get better at this."

- Joey Casco, CSW


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