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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Is That Really in There?

Today, I thought I'd start yet another new feature, one on wine descriptors. When you read a wine review, you see lots of aromas and flavors that make sense. There are all kinds of fruit you read about, whether it's something familiar like apples or pears for white wines or cherry and blackberry for red wines, or something exotic and downright strange like sapote, mangosteen or carombola, you can understand why wine might have fruit flavors, given the fact that grapes are fruit. Sure, it's fascinating that one fruit can taste like so many others with just the addition of a little yeast, time and sometimes oak, but the idea that wine smells and tastes like fruit isn't beyond belief.

It's also not a stretch that wine might smell like other kinds of plant life - nuts, herbs, spices and flowers. Lots of these agricultural products share the same things that make them smell and taste good. Rarely does a plant have one single flavor or aroma.

Read enough wine reviews, however, and you will find some descriptors (words or phrases used to describe a wine's aromas, flavors or body) that just seem, well, odd. Strange. Off-putting, even.

OK, some are just best called disgusting.

Now I'm not talking about aromas and flavors that indicate bad quality or a fault in the wine. No, I'm not referring to wine that smells like band-aids (brettanomyces yeast strain contamination), nail polish remover (also known as acetone, a sign that acetic acid - vinegar - has combined with the alcohol in the wine) or sauerkraut (a smell that happens from malolactic fermentation).

What we're going to talk about, from time to time is legitimate, but very strange, flavors and aromas that appear in certain grapes, regions or under specific conditions. Each time we do this segment, I'll give you two white wine descriptors and two red wine descriptors.

Is That Really in White Wine? 1: Wet Wool

This is a rich and oily smell that can indicate richness itself in a white wine. That by itself seems like it would be a good smell, but that oily character is just half the story. There's also an animal smell, something I can only explain as "sheepy." It smells like lanolin, the substance that keeps wool soft and protects sheep from water. If you really want to experience the real smell of wet wool, put on your best suit and go dancing in the rain. Or go find a sheep, push your smeller into the wool and inhale.

Well, that, or go find hand or body lotion with lanolin in it and take a big sniff. Might be easier.

Is That Really in White Wine? 2: Chives

Chives? You mean, young tender green onions? With the mild but sharp smell of same said vegetable, ONIONS?

You read it right. Some wines actually have a hint of a mild onion aroma and flavor. Keep in mind you won't find chives as a dominant flavor in wine. It's just something you may find as a complement to fruit, mineral or other flavors in wine. It's found in white wines that might have a pleasant vegetal component to them like Sauvignon Blanc or a grape grown mostly in Austria, Gruener Veltliner.

Is That Really in Red Wine? 1: Old Saddle Leather

You all know that earthy flavors and aromas are part of red wine. You've probably tasted things like coffee, chocolate, herbal flavors, or even meaty smells in your reds. These are pretty common. Old saddle leather is a specialized version of a more general descriptor of earthiness, leather.

Old saddle leather tastes like a richer, sweeter, more vinous version of leather. It's a sweetened, less aggressive, mellower version of saddle leather. Of course with some of these descriptors, it's really dangerous to linger on them too long.

God forbid you'd think about the saddle that Walter Brennan's butt sat in 16 hours a day when he filmed all those westerns. Nobody wants that in their wine.

Is That Really in Red Wine? 2: Creosote

For those of you that don't know what creosote is, it's the chemical they use to treat telephone poles and railroad ties from rotting quickly. It's a petroleum distillate made from coal tar. If you want to know what it smells and tastes like, think about a cross between wood smoke and motor oil. I actually like when a red wine has a bit of a creosote aroma to it because when I was a kid, we used to go to Six Flags Over Texas a lot. They used creosote to treat the roads there, so you could always smell it on hot summer days, so it's a familiar and happy aroma.

Read enough wine reviews and you are sure to find these descriptors and many more that are even stranger. Perhaps you can get a better picture of why on earth these elements of wine are there by reading actual reviews of wines that possess these things. You need to see odd descriptors in context. Here's an example, from Robert Parker's description of the 2004 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin:

"The 2004 Hommage has an inky blue/purple color to the rim and a stunning nose of creosote, blackberry, black truffles, licorice, and hints of graphite. Full-bodied with layers and layers of concentration, fabulous purity, and a blockbuster finish, this wine will be at its best in about 10 years, and last for half a century or more."

See how this works? If you isolate the creosote descriptor, you might think the wine would be awful. Taken in context with blackberry, truffles, licorice and other flavors, the creosote dimension is better seen what it is - one small part of the the wine's complexity.

Or, it may just taste like you're licking a telephone pole.



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