I am always amused when I read a column or essay—some long enough to qualify as a dissertation—asserting that the language of wine is too complicated.
A favorite tactic is to identify a handful of seemingly off-the-wall wine descriptors, and then ask a question along the lines of, “Have you ever tasted a loganberry (or a cigar box, or cat pee, etc.)?”
Well, if the question is specifically about cat pee, my answer would be a definite no. But I’ve certainly smelled it, and that is the point that the (usually sarcastic) critics fail to comprehend.
While our palates are comparatively limited in the number of flavors they can perceive, our noses are amazingly evolved in what they can smell. For many years, the figure commonly cited was 10,000 different aromas. More recently, some studies have suggested that the number may be closer to 100,000.
But our sense of taste is much more limited, simply because we use our taste buds much less frequently than our eyes (sight), ears (heating) or nose (smell). Our taste sensors simply are atrophied in comparison.
So, it’s quite possible to smell cat pee in a wine (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc often has that “aroma”), but not to taste it.
That fact, of course, is lost on the wise-cracking bloggers, who would rather see a post go viral than actually write authoritatively. Many are motivated more by “hits” and “shares” than facts. It’s just a fact of life in Internet “journalism,” which often is much more Wild West than Ivy League in tone. Checking one’s spelling is easy; checking facts requires some work.
But I digress. Developing a fine-tuned sense of smell requires a lot of practice (i.e., work). It’s a valuable tool in the world of wine because it can help one identify the types of wine they really like—and help others identify with those choices.
With that in mind, it’s important that the descriptors used be universal in understanding. Good: leather. Bad: “The old coat my mother used to wear on Sundays.”
It also doesn’t hurt to know that if you smell petrol in a wine, it’s probably a Riesling, or if you smell pepper and raspberry, it’s probably Zinfandel.
In wine tasting, the nose knows more than the palate, and the more the nose knows, the better equipped we are to have a unique experience with each glass we drink.