Every so often, I come across a column or editorial suggesting that the language of wine is too complicated.
Typically, the writer will 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?
(I never use that latter descriptor, but some wine writers utilize it as a trait of some Sauvignon Blanc wines, especially from New Zealand. By the way, it’s considered a positive trait, not a negative one. But we digress…)
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.
Our sense of taste, however, is much more limited, simply because we use our taste buds much less frequently than our eyes (sight), ears (hearing) or nose (smell). Our taste sensors simply are atrophied in comparison.
So, it’s quite possible to smell cat pee in a wine, but not to taste it. That fact, of course, is lost on some bloggers, who seem more motivated by “hits” and “shares” than facts. It’s just a fact of life in Internet “journalism.” Checking one’s spelling is easy; checking facts requires some work.
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, there’s a good chance it’s 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.
And by extension, if we can verbalize what we smell and taste, we’ll be able to seek out similar wines for future enjoyment.