I meant to provide weekly “behind the podium” updates from my wine class, but the move to the house consumed a lot of time. Instead, I'll catch you all up on the last few weeks.
Class 2: Your Nose Knows
This class is a lot of work for the teacher, but I know — as someone who took this class several years ago — that it gives the students good tools for identifying aromas in wines. I spent the afternoon chopping a wide range of ingredients and putting them in little Dixie cups with foil covers. Lemon wedges, lemon zest, canned peas, liver, salumi, bacon, steak, chalk, and many more — I think I ended up with 70 samples. I write the name of the ingredient on the bottom of the cup. Students sniff the cup, try to guess the aroma, and then check their answer on the bottom of the cup. For those aromas that are limited to white or red wines, I put the sample into a cup and pour in a neutral white or red wine. It’s easy to recall an aroma when a person says its name — if I say, “vanilla,” you can probably conjure up its odor — but much harder to go from an aroma to its name. This is one of the hardest parts about articulating what’s in a glass, and of course the subject of infinite amusement to non-connoisseurs. “Flutter of Edam and soupçon of asparagus,” indeed.
As I told my students, I’m of two minds about the push to standardize wine descriptions (perhaps best personified by Dr. Ann Noble’s Aroma Wheel). On one hand, I encourage my students to develop their own tasting vocabularies: This helps them remember wines and draws from their own experience. On the other hand, a standard vocabulary allows you to read someone else’s tasting note and make sense of it, and it allows you to articulate something meaningful to a sommelier or wine merchant.
Either way, you have to train yourself to map scents to names, and this exercise gives students a chance to start that re-education. After we smelled the samples — a chaotic flow of cups around the room — I poured a number of aromatic and typical wines and asked for descriptions. Starting from that moment, my class couldn’t get away with “citrus” or “berry” as descriptions: They had to drill down and tell me which citrus and which berry. They had to tell me if a wine smells more like citrus zest or the fruit as a whole. (The other night, one student said a wine smelled like shoe polish, and another one quipped, “brown shoe polish,” which gave the class a good laugh.)
Class 3: Faults And Flaws
“Next week,” I told them at the end of the second class, “we’ll be smelling all sorts of stinky wines.” Hardly a good sales tactic. But I think this class is one of the most educational for one main reason: I scrounge up corked bottles from local wine shops, and then I pour (hopefully) uncorked glasses of the same wine. (Because of a cold, I couldn’t smell that night, and I passed around a “good” bottle that was corked as well, which everyone thought was amusing.) Naturally, I talked about how cork taint gets into a bottle, alternate closures, what to do when you get a corked bottle at a restaurant, and so forth.
I also poured samples of flaws that might not be flaws in the right context. A brown color and nutty aroma — signs of oxidation — are flaws in a recent Chardonnay but features of oloroso sherry. A hint of nail polish is a flaw in most wines, but not in an Amarone or Valpolicella. Brettanomyces, the yeast that gives wines a leathery, sweaty, “barnyard” aroma, is a flaw to a UC Davis graduate but not to a vigneron in the Southern Rhône or Burgundy.
Class 4: Oak
From a shopping perspective, this is probably the hardest class in the entire course. I went to the store and asked for wines with varying oak profiles: neutral, lots of American, lots of French, light toast, heavy toast. This isn’t how wine merchants categorize their inventory, so they had to do some thinking. But I found a good selection.
In my lecture, I tried to emphasize that oak is analogous to spice in cooking. You can overdo it, but a little can add complexity to a wine. I talked about barrels (and printed out my article on barrel alternatives) and the different variables that could affect the wine: the wood, the toasting, the size, and the age. I talked about New World versus Old World philosophies (more oak versus less, to paint in broad strokes) and increasing shifts to an “international” palate, which tends to have more oak character.
Rather than give the students a list of oak aromas — there are tons — I told them to look for umami scents — toasted bread, caramel, molasses, soy, chocolate, coffee — and different types of spices and nuts. The class called out descriptions and I wrote them down, and then we talked about which aromas were from the oak. By the end, I think they had a good sense of whether a wine had seen a lot of oak or if it was well-integrated: They could describe wines as oaky or not even before they knew what had happened to it in the cellar. (I pour the wines blind.)
Labels: Wine Wine Wine