As you hold the wine glass in your hand, you read the tasting note: aromas of cassis, blackberry, plum sauce and cigar box. You dip your nose in for a whiff. All you get is the smell of wine. And so goes the disconnect between those writing the tasting note and the everyday drinker.
Thing is, the person writing the tasting note probably doesn’t have any better sense of smell than you, he or she simply has more practice. In other words, better sense memory. When an “expert” taster smells wine, they are using their sense memory bank to gather what they smell. If they write down strawberry, it’s because they have smelled a strawberry before and they are able to connect the aroma in the wine with the aroma they once associated with strawberry. You’ve probably had a strawberry before, but may not be able to immediately recognize it in a wine (unless someone suggests it), because you have not had the practice of having to do so many, many times. Learning to assess a wine and its components, like aromas and flavors, are just like learning a sport or a language or a new skill – you just have to practice.
So next time you bite into a strawberry, think about the flavor, the smell and everything about it. Same goes for all food and flavors – the more you remember, the more you can associate when you assess a wine. Some things you may never be able to taste – gooseberry is a common term for Sauvignon Blanc, particularly from New Zealand. But they are not frequently found state side, so you may not be able to stock that away in your sense memory. Some things you may never WANT to taste – Sancerre is sometimes referred to with an aroma of “pis du chat,” or “cat pis.” No need to have that in your sense memory. The gist of the message here, should you want to improve your ability to assess a wine’s aromas and flavors with a wide vocabulary, is to practice! Practice tasting food, remember smells, practice tasting wine and start putting the two together.
For those of you who don’t live in the Bay Area: Lucky You. We’ve been freezing since last year. Each day I pray the forecast will predict that some ray of sunshine might make it through the fog. This, week I gambled on short sleeves and got lucky. It’s a beautiful 81 degrees and I am reminded of a warm day in July when Diamond Creek opened its doors and invited me to its Open House. It was all very exciting, I signed up for the mailing list and viola, I received a parking pass to attend their open house, ah… the feeling of privilege.
Wine aficionados have long known about Diamond Creek but for some reason it remains a relatively unknown gem. I was very excited to see the three storied vineyards up close. Diamond Creek produces Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively and has done so since 1968. Only 3 single vineyard wines are produced each year, each with a splash of Petit Verdot, they are: Gravelly Meadows, Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill. Although located in the Napa Valley, these are not Napa Cabs. These are Bordeaux, through and through. The late Al Brounstein sweet talked his way into a few premier cru cuttings in Bordeaux and personally flew them (also known as smuggling) into California.
After swimming in all 3 of their lakes (woo-hoo!), I made my way to 2008 barrel tasting. Let me walk you though the barrel samples in three words: Dy-no-mite. Like the 2007 vintage, these wines are meant to age. In ascending order of intensity it goes from Gravelly Meadows to Red Rock Terrace and finally, the mighty Volcanic Hill. The names are completely self-explanatory and literally describe these three vineyards. Each vineyard is distinct, each an actual stones throw from the next. Like the greatest Cabs of the world, muscular deep black fruit, spice, earth and tannins balance with the underlying acidity to give grace and elegance. Fruit and oak bombs need not apply. Although these are cellar worthy wines, the 2007 Gravelly Meadows and even the yet to be released 2008 vintage can be uncorked, if only to realize how great these are even as babies. To give you some perspective, fellow picnickers were uncorking bottles from 70’s and 80’s to the delight of our hosts.
It looks like it going to be another warm day tomorrow, maybe not a Cab day, but those Diamond Creek lakes are making me restless for next year's Open House.
As a long-term member of the "majority" of
oenophiles, defined as those individuals have have never tried a vertical of any fancy
wine or have 1,000 bottle wine cellars, I have been authorized (by myself) to invite anyone who's curious
about wine to join our group, like a jogger vs. runner, the distinction
is a state a mind. Oh and just to be clear, those of us who know which
years are "good years" and what to avoid or covet in wineshop, don't
actually buy or even try every bottle of wine, instead we cheat by
attending wine tastings.
This weekend, I attended the New Zealand Wine Discovery Tasting in San
Francisco. I seldom write tasting notes but I do make mental notes of
my general impressions and star my favorites. It's not laziness on my
part, but really it's about forcing wines to be memorable for good or
bad and taking away generalities that are much more useful than jotting
down 5 descriptors. I use this info to navigate menus and select from wines I've never tasted. So,
without further ado, I've laid out below my tasting plan of attack and
the mental notes that followed to show you how I add to my wine
knowledge without trying every bottle I see.
Attack Strategy #1: Scan the winery list. You might see wines you've always been curious about.
There has been a lot of buzz lately about pinot noirs from Central Otago, so
I gave them a try. I would have liked to have found a greater breadth
of aromatics and more substance. Nonetheless, I
found that Central Otago wines tended to have more complexity than
other regional wines, consequently, they would be great better with
food and at lower price points than quality pinot noir from California,
in other words, a good value. I liked the 2008 Matua Valley Central Otago Pinot Noir. Mental note to self: Central Otago = food/wallet compatible.
Attack Strategy #2 Taste the most expensive wines. This is often the best way to make sure your aren't disappointed later on.
In this case, the higher priced wines retailed around $36. They all turned out to be pretty good in terms of quality and given the pricing, as compared to top tier pinot, a good deal. Our favorite of the event turned out to be one of the most expensive at $37
a bottle (2008 Alana Estate Pinot Noir from Martinborough). For $37 and
up you get more tannic structure and finesse (in other words, it's not
quite as fresh and fruity). Mental note to self: Martinborough is producing some excellent and nuanced higher end pinots.
Attack Strategy#3 Experiment. Try the strangest wine you see on the list. Maybe it's from an obscure place or perhaps a variety you've never heard of.
We tried a brilliant 2008 Bordeaux blend from the tiny island of Waiheke produced by Man O' War called the Ironclad. Mental note to self: Waiheke Island is on my radar for Bordeaux blends.
Attack Strategy#4 Sample different regions and vintages
We tried side by side vintages of the 2007 and 2008 Tarras Vineyards
Pinot Noir from Central Otago. I enjoyed them both. I learned later
that 2007 is a great vintage for reds in New Zealand. Given a choice, I
would go for the 2007 if only because additional age rounds a wine out. Mental note to self: Don't fret over 2007 vs 2008 vintage for Central Otago pinot.
Attack Strategy#5: Sample different price points. I like knowing what another $5-10 gets me.
For this experiment I tried three lines of Brancott wines. First, I tasted the 2009 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc Malborough ($11). I got a lot of grassiness, grapefruit and perceptible sweetness. I like my wines a bit drier, however, it paired very well with oysters. Next we sampled the 2009 Brancott Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($15). This wine was more weighty and less obvious in the nose, making room for more complex aromas. I think this one would pair much better with an entrée than the less expensive Brancott which is better suited to more casual occasions or a hot summer picnic. Finally, I tried the Brancott Letter Series 'B' Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($24). This is very good wine with an interesting minerality on the nose and good texture in the mouth, by far the best and pairs well with seafood and lighter pasta dishes. For these wines, I think it's important to decide what you personally enjoy. Some tasters love grapefruit aromas (one taster kept raving that "the
grapefruit just punches you in the nose"), whereas, I like less
violence and more minerality. Mental note to self: These start fruity and crisp and increase in weight, minerality and complexity for just a few dollars more.