We’ve all seen those florid tasting notes that throw out 100 different adjectives to describe the aroma of a Russian River Valley Chardonnay or the texture of a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. And, usually, we scoff at the overindulgence, wondering if that guy got paid by the word.
We taste only five things (including umami a relatively newly acknowledged flavor), but we can SMELL thousands of different aromas. Trying to figure out what you are experiencing when drinking a glass of wine can be a little complicated given that the flavors and aromas that we take in are mitigated by and attentuated and elucidated; subsumed and elevated by the acidity, tannin, and additives (think barrels) that accompany those organoleptic elements. The age of the wine and experience of the drinker will also add further layers of complexity and challenge.
The flavors and aromas of fresh wine grapes are pretty straight-forward. By variety, they certainly differ, but the range of differences is relatively narrow. It is the miracle of fermentation, though, with its vast multitude of chemical reactions that actually create the aromatic compounds that are identical to rose petals or spice or geraniums. Wine is like a piece of cooked meat. The fresh ingredients smell ineluctably like themselves. But throw in fermentation and a fire and the chemistry changes everything.
When I am going through fermentation bins each day, I am looking for the evolution of the aromatics, flavors, and textures of the wine. The first couple of days, the bins smell like the berries I plucked off in the vineyard a couple of days before. Each day, though, complexity increases (hopefully in a good way…I smell, early on, mostly for off-odors that could signal a problem with the ferment) and my notes abound with aromatic descriptions that serve really to help me remember a certain point in time during the wine’s early life that may help me foresee (and manipulate) one out of a multitude of potential futures.
I hadn’t really thought of it that way, until right now. Early on in the winemaking process, aromas are predictive. Later, (sometimes much later) those aromas harken back to a very specific point in time. That very singular combination of aromas reminds me of the wine I drank with my wife on our honeymoon and then later had, coincidentally, when my oldest turned 21…or the spoiled wine I threw away when I cleaned out my grandfather’s wine cellar after he passed (which automatically makes me think of my grandmother’s death and the funeral arrangements I made for her a few years later).
So, taking it another few steps, it can be said that the whole of one’s life experience (all those most important of moments) can be summed up by what we smell emanating from a glass of Cabernet. How’s that for the bottomlessness of wine?