Favorite Wine Anecdotes – Overdoing it with Wine Descriptors

If you want to take the allure out of wine, just put more effort into describing it than simply enjoying it. I was recently at a wine bar and the woman next to me ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. The server thoroughly described the bouquet and flavor of the wine as he poured her a glass. I thought he overplayed it a bit with the lengthy description, so I offered that sometimes a hint of cat pee is also present on the nose of sauvignon blanc from that particular region, and also in France’s Loire Valley sauvignon blancs of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. She laughed and probably thought I was playfully commenting on the over-the-top explanation of her wine. Unfortunately (or not), there wasn’t any cat pee to be found on the nose of her glass of vino, she still refused to believe me, and was probably beginning to think I was a little nutty. So I pulled out my phone, located a couple of Internet references to cat pee and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and I finally had a believer, although she was still flabbergasted by the unlikely reference.

The cat urine smell (the French call it pipi du chat) in wine actually comes from a sulfur compound called p-mentha-8-thiol-3-one. When it achieves a certain concentration it smells like cat pee, but it also gives off a pleasant herbal quality at lower levels, and black currant when larger amounts are present. Those higher concentrations can exist in Cabernet Sauvignon and that is one of the reasons we frequently hear tasters blurt out the black currant descriptor when drinking Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pencil lead is another Cabernet Sauvignon descriptor, particularly for those wines produced in the famous Pauillac commune of France’s Bordeaux region. Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in well-drained soils like the gravel in Pauillac, and the terrain there imparts amazingly satisfying pencil lead aromas and flavors to the wines.

Many other unlikely descriptors exist in the world of wine tasting, and most are eminently explainable. Some are evidence of flawed wines and others are caused by naturally-occurring components of grapes, and the soil and environs in which they grow.

How about some barnyard or sweaty horse saddle descriptors for your wine? These traits are caused by a yeast called Brettanomyces, 4-ethylguiacol. Another strain of the same yeast, Brettanomyces, 4-ethylphenol, causes a Band-Aid smell. Wet cardboard or damp newspaper smells are flaws caused by the compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which loves to grow in cork, and a nail polish remover smell is caused by the naturally-occurring compound, ethyl acetate. Petroleum notes are frequently found in the aroma of aged riesling; they are caused by another naturally-occurring compound named 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene or TDN. Those “petro” aromas are actually very desirable; if you have never experienced it before, stick your nose in your next glass of riesling and see if you can detect it.

I could go on and on about wacky wine descriptors and their causes, and in the right context the discussion can actually be interesting and informative. However, when all of this mumbo-jumbo leaks into our everyday enjoyment of wine—whether it occurs in a social situation, during a meal, or even at a wine bar—it is boring and pretentious. Admittedly, winemakers and industry professionals legitimately need to use this jargon in the production, analysis, and sales of wine. When it leaks out to the consumer level, however, it can become overbearing and a downright distraction from the pure pleasure of wine. The aforementioned woman at the wine bar, for example, finished her sauvignon blanc and promptly ordered a beer. I enthusiastically joined her.

~ by Thomas on September 20, 2010.

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