Monday, August 07, 2006

"No Sniffers, Please."

So reads the liner note stipulation on Lou Reed’s…ahem…"experimental" 1975 Metal Machine Music. On this, Sweet Jane's father and I have a major difference of opinion. Sniffers are absolutely welcome at The Naked Vine. Sniffing is encouraged, to be perfectly honest.

In fairness, Good Mister Reed is talking about his then-preference for mainlining amphetamines and I'm talking about tasting wine -- so I guess you could truly say that context is everything. I also hope my missives are easier to handle with your lunch or morning coffee than sixty-four minutes of feedback and distortion. (Lou's week still beats our year, however.)

What's does sniffing have to do with wine, you ask? Well…just about everything.

Taste is delightful, isn't it? From the cool sweetness of ice cream to the smooth indulgence of dark chocolate to the myriad spices of Asian food to the unique flavor of a lover's kiss, we love to drown ourselves in taste. However, your taste buds can only discern four distinct sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. There's conversation about a fifth taste -- called "umami" -- found in MSG and things like aged cheese -- but the jury's out on that one. Everything that you've ever tasted is a combination of those four (or five) sensations.

Scents, however, are a different story. The average human being can discern between two and three thousand different scents. Skilled experts can discern upwards of 15,000 different scents. Flavor, then, is a combination of scent and taste. When you taste wine -- you're not just looking for which of the four (or five) tastes are in play. Think I'm kidding? Hold your nose and take a sip from a wine glass and see what you get. Or think about the last dinner you had during high summer allergy season. Every flavor in anything you’ve ever eaten or drunk is an amalgam of taste and smell. The greatest variation in wines lies in their scents. Thus, wine tasting is, more accurately, largely wine sniffing.

Many of you have probably seen a wine drinker swirling a wine, then burying their nose in the glass. This little ritual may look like the affectation of a wine snob, but honestly, this method is the best way to get a real sense of a wine’s flavor. When you swirl a glass of wine (and it does take a little practice to keep from slopping it everywhere), the alcohol in the wine gets exposed to air and evaporates. The evaporating alcohol carries esters -- organic compounds found in the wine -- into the air with it. Many esters have very distinctive scents. When you swirl a glass of wine, dip your honker in, and take a big sniff, your olfactory nerve senses more of these happy little carbon chains -- giving you a stronger dose of the wine's scent. When you taste a wine, I find it best to hold the wine in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing, allowing it to coat your tongue completely. The evaporating alcohol takes the esters into your sinuses while all your taste buds activate. You can then marry those four (or five) tastes on your tongue to the scents of the wine, giving you true flavor.

The wines I've chosen for this installment are varietals with very distinct scents, in case you want to practice…

Chateau St. Michele 2005 Gewürztraminer -- The first time I tried a gewürztraminer, I thought, "Cool. Wine with an umlaut." Thankfully, this particular varietal doesn't conjure Aqua Net nightmares and scary flashbacks of Bulletboys covers. Gewürztraminer was originally cultivated in the Alsace region of France and spread from there to Germany. 'Traminers tend to be extremely fragrant, but they often don't "taste like they smell." This entry from the Pacific Northwest is no exception. You can't miss the melons and fresh flowers on your first sniff. From the sniff, you'd then think this would be a syrupy sweet wine, but there's a pleasant level of dryness to the finish and some real spice -- particularly cloves and cinnamon. It's certainly not a "sweet" wine -- but it's got more sugar to it than, say, a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. If you've got some spicy Szechuan Chinese or Thai, snag a bottle of this for $9-10, and you'll be dining well. (And you pronounce it Gee-VERTZ-truh-meaner)

Smoking Loon 2005 Viognier -- Much like the malbec in my first entry, the French traditionally used Viognier (pronounced VEE-yawn-yay) primarily as a blending grape. Over the last five or six years, Viognier has become one of the hotter varietals in the white wine market. Viognier tends a friendly, fragrant wine -- which leads to its current popularity. Much like a partner on a Saturday night date, a wine that smells nice makes the evening pass much more pleasantly. The Smoking Loon Viognier (I first thought that a local friend of mine might have been the winemaker, but I digress…) has almost a perfumey scent when you give it a swirl. I smell fresh pears and lavender -- like someone's giving you aromatherapy. Again, like gewürztraminer, it's extremely flavorful but not particularly sweet. This viognier is a little acidic with a nice fruity apricot flavor. Very refreshing on a warm evening, or if you're a smoked salmon fan. About $8-9. Scrumptious!

Cline 2005 Zinfandel -- I promised I'd get back to zinfandel. I don't drink a lot of cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel this time of year. When the heat index is in triple figures, usually the last thing I want is a huge red -- but zinfandels are great examples of very fragrant red wines. This Cline Zin starts with a very strong scent of blackberries and black licorice. On your tongue, this wine gives you a quick burst of cherries and blackberries, but quickly turns tannic and dry with a little bit of pepper. The finish is long, peppery, and dry. This is the type of wine I'd usually pick up in the late fall, to be perfectly honest -- but if you're going to have a steak and you want an inexpensive zin, this one isn't a bad call. This is a wine that I'd be interested to pick up next year. If you're feeling ambitious, buy two bottles. Drink one now and write down what you think. Hide the other one in the back of a closet. Next year about this time, pull it out and try it. I guarantee it's going to taste like an entirely different (and probably much better) wine. If you break it out in public, your friends with will think you brought a $30 bottle to the party. But for now, you can spend around $11 and have something quite tasty.

Until next time -- L'Chaim!


JettieSatellite, The_Wizard of Covington said...

Not had the Smoking Loon. I'll give it a go.

Anonymous said...

Dooood, you live in a red state, Kentuck. You
should only be concerned with the regular wines