I once risked being assaulted and arrested
for following a woman around a certain
large metropolitan area. Her perfume
had me throwing caution and common
sense to the wind.
Aromas stab at that deep, dark part
of the brain that tells us we need to eat,
sleep, hump and not stick our hand into
the flame. Fairness and rationality have
nothing to do with it. That’s the point: It’s
a survival skill. Who among us hasn’t been
warned to lay low or made weepy or jelly-legged
at an unforgettable scent?
It is for me one of the more mesmerizing
aspects of wine: an aroma’s ability to transport
me to softer times and happier places.
Wine is a visceral experience; it demands
a reaction. And if it’s really good—or really
bad, for that matter—it will wrench a reaction
from us precisely because it appeals to
those deep, dark parts of the brain. Aromas
tell us things about wine; most of us just
aren’t used to paying attention to scent.
Think of the housecat that forgets why he
likes to catch mice: He still does it but
doesn’t always eat his catch.
Technically, aromas are molecular
structures absorbed by the mucus linings
in the olfactory bulb located in our sinuses
and decoded by the brain. Aromas give us
specific information, the nature of which
is unique to our own brains and experience.
During wine-education classes, my
students are required to identify small
vials of aromas. As the exercise goes on,
the students’ answers become increasingly
personal. Interestingly enough, the
most popular aromatic reference for many
Gen X’ers is candy—lots of candy. Jolly
Ranchers, Pixy Stix, Swedish fish, etc.
Sugar-rotted imaginations? You decide.
I am always amazed at the constant and predictable fear in students, both consumers and waitstaffs alike, that their personal reaction to a wine might be “wrong.” If I ask a group of 30 people to identify a color, 30 different answers follow. The same happens with scents. It’s part of one’s personal survival catalog. We all know of one jerk at the last wine party, the one who tossed off adjectives when sniffing wine, like “sassy” and “spicy” or that the wine is “marsupial, yet pouchless” or some such tripe. Such people are counter to the social nature of the beverage. When it comes to identifying wine aromas, there are no wrong answers, so don’t be intimidated. Just ask yourself, “What the hell does that smell like?”
Aromas reveal much about a wine. With
both red and white wines, aroma begins
with the sugar in the fruit at harvest. The
more sugar in the grapes at harvest, the
more developed and layered those aromas
become. Early-ripening white varieties
such as Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner
Veltliner will have less sugar at harvest, and
therefore lower alcohol. Thus, the aromas
reveal a wine that is less ripe—think citrus
fruits such as lemons and limes. Lateripening
varieties such as Chardonnay
and Viognier require more heat, develop
more sugar and create wines with
higher alcohol and richer aromas
ranging from ripe, sweet apples to
peach pie to tropical fruits.
Wine dorks discuss red wines
in a similar fashion. There are
varieties that reach the peak
of their expression earlier
rather than later—Pinot Noir
versus, say, Zinfandel. Generally the
aromatic descriptors for reds fall into two
categories: red fruits (those with less sugar
such as strawberries and cherries—think
tart) versus black fruits (such as blackberry
and plum—think jam). The choice
of fermentation and fermentation vessel
also affects aromas, but it all begins with
ripeness and alcohol—whichever sugarhigh,
gummy-bear memories they trigger
in your particular brain.