When I took a wine vocabulary class a couple years ago, I was totally flummoxed by some of the more complex wines. How can anyone detect individual notes in something so harmonious? Part of it is a symptom of modern city life: we seldom slow down enough to observe what’s around us, or to enjoy what we smell and taste. We just soak it in. Another part of the problem is a lack of a common language. (Does woody or earthy mean the same to you as it does to me?)
But the problem that has stood out most, and has finally begun to resolve itself for me, is that many of us need to develop a solid mental catalogue of basic scent and flavor notes. It’s harder than one might think.
Do you really know what a rose smells like, or do you just know it when it’s thrust in front of you? Can you detect it among other scents? Are you familiar enough with its various permutations that you can still pick it up as an ingredient in a blend? I’ve finally reached that point, and it was underscored last week when I was trying to determine the difference between two favorite geranium fragrances, Frederic Malle’s Géranium Pour Monsieur and Miller Harris’s Geranium Bourbon. I knew the Malle geranium was mildly minty, but what made the Miller Harris one so different? It was deeper (I can hear that wine class teacher scolding me for using a vague term), but how? Deeper often means musks and vanillas, but this had something else too, something…rose. That was it. When I hit upon that—and I’ll admit, it didn’t completely dawn on me until I looked up the notes—it was obvious. Likewise with Penhaligon’s Elixir, which has Turkish rose among spices, vanilla, and tonka beans.
On the alcohol front, I had a similar revelation last week with a glass of wine at a restaurant. The wine wasn’t anything fancy, but it was delicious. It was a Lodi, California zinfandel called Predator, a thick, jammy red with lots of velvety vanilla and berry flavors. My wife, who took that wine vocabulary class with me, put me on the spot: “What do you taste?” The first thing was the berry jam, I said. But there was something else, something strong. “Oak!” she exclaimed. “It tastes just like the charred oak barrel we’re aging that cocktail in!”
She was right. Once she mentioned it, the flavor almost dominated the fruit. For the second time now, it reminded us what an incredibly useful education in flavors it was for us to prime our small oak barrel with water for a few days before aging a cocktail in it. (For the whole background, read The Barrel-aged Cocktail Experiment Begins, then read Barrel-Aged Cocktail Update.) Sother Teague, head bartender at Rye in Williamsburg, had suggested I turn that water into ice cubes, so I didn’t throw out the water. When I drained it after five days in the barrel, I put some in a glass and smelled it. The amber water smelled just like whiskey, and tasted like it too. But it was just oaked water, without any alcohol. So that’s what makes whiskey taste like that, my wife and I said to each other. Now it’s so much easier to pick out the effects of oak on any spirit—or wine.
It’s exciting to make these connections. It means that we’re more able to describe what we like and want in a fragrance, a wine, a spirit, or a cocktail. It also means a deeper enjoyment of those things.