I’m fairly sure that I’ve been considering writing this post for a long time ….. I just didn’t know it! All it took was a little shove in the right direction and from the right angle. In fact it was TWO angles, not one. The first was from a new book which encapsulated a great deal of what I believed about wine, especially tasting and the “science” behind it. The second was from an internet “conversation” with a good blogging friend. Adding these two things together gave me a lightbulb moment, but before I switch that lightbulb on let me begin with my fumbling around in the dark.
Over the years I have written many posts about people who write tasting notes in the style of what I have called “fruit salad bingo”, you know the sort of thing where a wine is described as a set of aromas such as violets, roses, mushroom, leather, cigar box, honeysuckle etc ….. and as a set of flavours such as peach, cherry, blackberry, melon, orange, grapefruit, honey, etc. I have attended tutored tastings and even been a wine judge in a U.K. awards event and been as frustrated as heck listening to what I “should” have been smelling and tasting …… according to others around me, but getting none of it. Instead I have said something like “it’s a Chardonnay, probably from xxx because yyy, or it’s a Sauvignon Blanc and almost certainly from zzz”. I’ve done the same with reds …… “it’s a Pinot Noir, it’s a Gamay, it’s a Malbec yada yada”. Can you see what I’m doing here? Grape and place, grape and place, grape and place. It got to the point where I started to think there was something wrong with me, or my equipment!
What set me off thinking about this again was a conversation I had with Danell at Vinthropology.com where she mentioned a rose petals aroma in a particular wine she had tasted. I replied along the lines of “Yes, I smell C10H18O too but usually in the garden🤣🤣” as I quoted the chemical formula for rose oil! What then followed was an exchange about how I sense Diacetyl in Chardonnay that has been subjected to malolactic fermentation, or Rotundone in Syrah/Shiraz, or Fraxetin in oaked Tempranillo, or Pyrazines in Sauvignon Blanc especially those from Marlborough in New Zealand. More “normal” people who sense these chemicals without knowing what they were would say buttery/creamy, pepper, sourness, and grassy/green pepper for each respectively.
The conversation with Danell continued as we discussed WHY I either detect or describe these sensations as Diacetyl instead of buttery/creamy, or Fraxetin instead of sourness and the answer was fairly obvious, though not something I had thought much about previously. Be patient …… I’ll come back to it in a minute!
After this exchange with Danell I had a “long discussion with myself” which included going back over a couple of articles plus a book from Jamie Goode I had recently read. Jamie has a PhD in Plant Biology and is a professional wine journalist. His website is at Wine Anorak and his book I referred to is I Taste Red in which one of the chapters discusses some specific aromas and flavours to be found in Sauvignon Blanc wines, and particularly those from Marlborough in New Zealand. These specific flavours are due to the presence of Pyrazines which I have already mentioned above and some research has shown that there are actually 4 different Pyrazines that can be present in wines of this variety but that it is ONE particular Pyrazine that significantly gives Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc its distinctive flavour, Methoxy IsoButyl Pyrazine, MIBP. Stay with me, I’ll try to simplify. However, it’s not only a larger amount of MIBP in the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that creates the distinction, because it needs the presence of another three Pyrazine compounds too ……. 3MH, 3MHA and 4MMP ….. do NOT be concerned about what these mean …… remember the main issue, that all FOUR are needed AND in the right proportions to create the “Marlborough effect”.
Danell’s response was naturally a display of surprise; “Do you actually?! 😯 I mean, is that the connection your brain makes when you smell it? How fascinating! I guess you would if you’ve had years of experience in a laboratory”.
My response was a bit more explanatory;
“Yes, I really do! I’m unsure why that is, although I think it’s a combination of my level of chemistry education which was in Analytical Chemistry for a PhD, plus a little I know of neuroscience from my psychology degree. My top 2 are Rotundone and Diacetyl, the latter coming from malolactic fermentation. I also taste Fraxetin especially in long oak aged Tempranillo. I often have to look up the actual formula but I roughly remember the structures of each because that’s a visual thing. Champa and I both recognise the smell of many chemicals from our university days, not wine connected, such as Pyridine, Amines, Phenols, Ketones yada yada. Sad isn’t it 😂😂”
What this really means is that in our 20s Dr C and I were “conditioned” in the recognition of many aromas, chemicals, substances we recognised and called by their structural names according to convention. We were analytical chemists, highly trained to identify things and what was in them. We used state of the art techniques including Mass Spectrometry, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Gas Liquid Chromatography, Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy, the simpler techniques of Infra Red and Ultra Violet spectrophotometry, polarography, plus what we call “wet analysis”. This went on for 5 years covering Masters degrees, Doctorates and Post Doctoral Fellowships. That is intense, it never leaves us, and needs to be compared and contrasted with what a trained sommelier or wine taster goes through to become qualified. In fact they are really incomparable, such that someone like myself who has 50 years worth of wine tasting/drinking without the professional wine tasters education cannot express the experience of an aroma in the same way that they can. We fall back on what has been crammed into our brains for 5 years. But of course a full 50 years also gave me a volume of knowledge from experiencing over 100 grape varieties from many different countries, regions and terroirs. My tasting is instantly holistic and judgemental to some extent, grape-place, grape-place etc.
In a post on his website Jamie Goode makes a really interesting point about some common smells we all experience and in the same way. We walk down the local high street past the bakers shop and smell ………. bread! We don’t smell flour, yeast or all of the scientifically identifiable aromas like furan derivatives (2-methylfuran, 2-pentylfuran, 2-acetylfuran), furfural derivatives (furfural and 5-methylfurfural), 2-furanmethanol, 2,3-pentanedione and methylpyrazine. Similarly as we walk past the coffee shop we smell …… coffee holistically, though I won’t bore you with all of the chemical components.
If you’re really interested in the flour analysis go here “Bread Chemical and Nutritional Characteristics”. And do read Jamie’s two articles on holistic aromas and tasting, here is Part 1 “Wine Just Tastes of Wine”
So now this brings me back to the title of this post, I Taste White. I think I have already mentioned quite a few chemicals I detect as my immediate sensory input. Many of them are associated with white wine and often associated with the acidity of the wine. So for example, of the three main white grapes I like ….. Very High acidity a Chenin Blanc; High acidity a Sauvignon Blanc; Moderate acidity a Chardonnay. In the latter I am detecting Malic Acid or Lactic Acid, apples or creamy/buttery for example and this varies as to whether the wine has undergone Malolactic fermentation in the winery. Of course there are also variations from country, regions, process and ageing that modifies things, but much of the acidity structure remains the same even if it’s intensity and fruit balance changes over time in the bottle. I don’t like raw, new tannin, hence my dislike of most red wines except Burgundian Pinot Noir which is low in tannin.
And so relating this back to my early university science education I am attempting to explain and possibly justify my “weirdness” in tasting notes. I just don’t get the aromas and flavours that trained tasters do, but I do have something that many don’t ….. a memory bank of stored particular experiences that hit me as soon as I smell or taste something ….. a furmint in Budapest, a Chardonnay in Puligny Montrachet, another Chardonnay in Chablis, a Pinot Noir in Pommard, a Gewurtztraminer in Ribeauville, a Nebbiolo in Rome, a Cabernet Sauvignon in San Francisco, a Syrah in Chateauneuf du Pape. Or, should that be a lactic acid in Puligny Montrachet, a malic acid in Chablis, Pyrazine in Menetou Salon, Rotundone in Chateauneuf du Pape? I’ll shut up!