Thursday, August 13, 2009

Epiphany in a Glass

The thing that makes wine grapes so very intriguing is the fact that the wines they become can smell and taste like so many different things in the world - flours and fruit, vegetables and minerals, spices, fur, tar, cedar - the list goes on! No other fruit can claim this talent. In my wine drinking adolescence, I remember how often I’d hear people talk about “buttery” Chardonnay. I had no idea whatsoever what they were talking about. It was a time when I started to question the validity of all these colorful descriptors, started thinking that the aromas and flavors they were talking about were implied - I mean come on, you can’t really smell butter in a glass of wine?! Or for that matter berries, smoke, citrus fruit, tea leaves... stop the nonsense! And then the day arrived when I was sitting in a wine tasting with a glass of California Chardonnay in front of me, thinking to myself “what the heck am I going to write for a tasting note?” I picked the glass up by its stem, pointed my nose downward over the rim and inhaled - “I SMELL THE BUTTER!!” Yes, everyone turned and looked at me, but they all understood my elation - as a wine aficionado, I had arrived.

As my wine education progressed, I learned more about the naturally occurring chemical compounds that create these smells, such as pyrazines that make Sauvignon Blanc smell like green bell pepper (I remember that epiphany well in a glass of Sancerre - it is those same pyrazines that make green bell peppers taste like green bell peppers!), and the lactic acid that makes Chardonnay taste like butter (the same lactic acid that makes butter taste like butter - see the pattern forming?) Not that I had to learn all of these chemicals by name - not that anyone has to learn them. Happily, my epiphanies continue even today, as I discover new things through my many wine tasting (read: drinking) experiences.

Its fun as well to revisit the things that I have discovered in the past, like last night, enjoying a glass of J. Bookwalter’s Subplot No. 22. from Columbia Valley, WA (NV) at Sweet and Lowdown in the Lower East Side and I suddenly felt something hard click against my tooth. I was tickled to find wine diamonds, those tartrate crystals that sometimes form when wine is changing temperature, clinging to one side of my empty glass. They are not common anymore, as most wineries will cold stabilize the wines before releasing (the wines are chilled down to make the tartrates form, and then filtered out and bottled), but they are a naturally occurring phenomenon in wine, and I remember the first time I spotted them myself while tasting a Pinot Gris in one of my WSET lessons. A few years later, I was working in a retail wine shop in SoHo when a woman came in looking very displeased, complaining that there was glass in her wine. The feeling of the little crystal on my tongue took me back to that memory, and although she would not believe me when I tried to explain, I felt good at least that I could offer an explanation. What can I say? I guess one woman’s epiphany is another woman’s fright.

I’m looking forward to my next epiphany, though its becoming harder, as I have discovered so much already. Time to really get my feet stained!

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