My mother used to make the best icing. Like many of her tried and true recipes, it came from the Joy of Cooking (to this day my first and only cooking bible), and called for confectioner’s sugar, butter, vanilla and cream (and of course food colouring). There were two things that made it so special; the first was that it was only ever made to top birthday cakes (there are 8 in my family, so many opportunities in a year). The second was it was hard icing, unlike the soft butter cream icings that everyone else seemed to prefer. It was the hours-long (!) wait in the fridge between the time the cake got iced and the time it got served, which made it harden. And then when you ate it, the first bite or two of cake was framed with a stiff sugary crust, but then the third bite (assuming you could slow down and make the slice last more than 30 seconds) was when the icing would start to soften and even melt in your mouth if you let it linger on your tongue. That’s what made it sublime.
This memory of my mom’s icing pops into my head every time I smell vanilla. In fact the memory is so strong that during our first sensory class, I incorrectly identified the vanilla aroma (associated with oak aging) as icing. Even now, my first instinct is to say icing, but I know better and have ‘mapped’ this smell to vanilla in my head so that I can correctly identify the aroma.
They say that our ability to smell is most strongly connected to memory (Who is ‘they’? Nose scientists, you know. Actually, the phenomenon is named after the French writer Marcel Proust, who describes the connection between smell and memory in his book In Search of Lost Time.) Before starting the program, I thought I’d be able to simply collect a library of smells in my head once I started doing sensory training. The truth is that your experiences create this in-depth reference collection – of course you can add to your library with practice – but making the smells stick in my library, well, that’s the challenge, as the memories associated with many of these new smells (being in the tasting lab) don’t stand out the way the memory of my mother’s birthday cakes does.
I remember thinking, during my first WSET class, that either everyone else was endowed with special smelling abilities, or that they were all collectively pulling my leg. (Are you really smelling wet white stone? Really? How do you know it’s not gray?) And I’ve come to appreciate that the truth of identifying wine aromas lies somewhere between the overly-romanticized descriptions found in some wine labels, and learning chemistry to identify the molecular makeup of the wine.
Some Facts about Wine Aromas
- There are actual molecules in wine which generate specific aromas – ie. 3-Mercaptohexan-1-ol or 3MH is the molecule responsible for grapefruit, passion fruit, gooseberry, and guava aromas. These aromas may come from the grape itself, the fermentation process, the aging process prior to bottling (particularly if it is aged in wood), or the evolution process in bottle (when wines achieve or pass their peak).
- Depending on your ability to smell it, you may or may not be able to identify it. You may be anosmic, or unable to perceive certain aromas. For example, I am anosmic to skunk spray (it is both a blessing and a curse, trust me. Fortunately for all of us, this is not an aroma one can find in wine).
- Depending on your context, you may describe it differently. For example, gooseberry is a classic aromatic indicator of Sauvignon Blanc, which also comes from the molecule 4MMP. But since gooseberries are less common in North America, its aroma is not often found in our collective memory banks. A cat owner might describe the smell as cat’s pee (I know, I know, doesn’t sound so appetizing does it?). Or, if you’ve never owned a cat, you might describe it as blackcurrant. Believe it or not, we’re all talking about the same molecule.
- Depending on how you perceive the aroma, you may describe it differently. For example, 3MH, a molecule commonly associated with tropical fruits smells stinky to me at first, with passionfruit and grapefruit notes coming out only after 30-60 seconds. I’ve had to learn to map these smells to the 3MH molecule as my experience of it is quite different from that of my colleagues (and I’ve also learned to be more patient during aroma identification…).
- A professor and wine writer, Dewey Markham, has told us that it is impossible to identify more than four aromas at any one time – so this is a good bullshit-meter. Although I have to add that I find smells evolve even over short periods of time, so I may find different aromas on the second or third sniff (no more than four, obviously…. I would never lie to you!).
So our economics professor’s favourite ridiculous wine description of ‘wild horses making love in the moonlight’ might have a kernel of truth to it. Yes, it’s highly romanticized, but horse sweat (presumably generated during the aforementioned activity) is a real descriptor for a bacteria called Brettanomyces. In low quantities, this is often considered a pleasant complexity in wine, but in high quantities – when the smell dominates and overpowers other aromas – this is considered a fault. My sister is particularly sensitive to this aroma, I suspect in part thanks to being the mother of a toddler where any barnyard-type smells are indicative of an unpleasant diaper-changing experience in her immediate future. By comparison, I don’t even notice low levels of this aroma due in part, I suspect, to my time volunteering at a donkey sanctuary during my university years. If anything it might register in the background as a pleasant smell, associated with a pleasant memory, and would have to be quite dominant for me to identify it as a fault.
All this to say that we’re learning about specific vinification: how to make dry white Bordeaux wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscadelle), how to make sweet white Sauternes wines (the same grapes, but affected by Botrytis/noble rot), Bordeaux red wines (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot as well as Malbec and Carmenere in much smaller quantities) and even orange wines from Georgia, the original birthplace of wine. The wines aren’t actually from oranges – they’re slightly orange in colour, due to long maceration (contact with grape skins during and after fermentation) of their white wines. And the effect of the skin contact means the white wines can even taste tannic.
All this to say that in Bordeaux, blending is important; each grape adds something unique to the final wine. to put it in perspective very generally for you: In the whites, the Sauvignon Blanc brings the fruit aromas and the acidity, while the Sémillon brings sweetness, roundness and structure. In the reds, the Merlot brings rich fruitiness (red fruits) and smooth tannins, the Cabernet Sauvignon also brings fruitiness (black fruits) and powerful tannins with high acidity; the Cabernet Franc brings earthiness and the Petit Verdot brings spiciness.
It turns out that the current vinification and sensory focus of the few weeks before vacation are the perfect lead-in to a week in Morocco, which leads a true assault on the senses. (Fear not, the rest of me is intact, although my posterior is challenging the truth of that after a few hours on camelback.)