In my last column, I introduced a few guidelines to help you understand the aromas in wine, based on your initial sniff, after swirling the wine to volatilize it in the glass. I touched on some obvious aspects, including aromas like bell peppers, burnt rubber, butterscotch, vanilla and barbecue.
Having focused on sauvignon blanc, let’s take a peek at — or a sniff of — pinot noir, a red grape that is similarly fun to decode. Pinot noir (the “heartbreak grape”) makes a commonly misunderstood wine, especially for those of us whose idea of Burgundy began with Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Yes, pinot noir is the red grape of Burgundy. But no, it doesn’t have massive color or smell like apples. This grape has fewer pigments than any other variety, so if I’m served an especially translucent red wine, my first guess is pinot. That is confirmed if it has an aromatic hint of cherries. Cabernet and merlot almost never smell of cherries.
If a delicate red wine smells like strawberries, or a cross between cherries and strawberries, and especially if it smells like strawberry pop tarts, it could be pinot but is probably gamay, fermented by “carbonic maceration,” a technique using whole berries in a closed container to yield a soft, fruity wine very quickly. It’s the trademark of Beaujolais nouveau and I consider it a hideous flaw. But that’s just me.
Actually, there are far worse flaws. If a wine smells like a musty closet in August or moldy cardboard, don’t blame the winemaker; blame the cork. “Corked” wine has been tainted with TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which can be detected by some people in parts per trillion. Individual thresholds for, and tolerance of, TCA vary widely. At the least-detectable level, it may only repress the fruitiness of the wine so that the wine seems “dumb,” without exhibiting other overt flaws. It occurs to as many as 10 percent of cork-finished wines, which has driven many producers to adopt screw caps as a far more reliable closure.
A number of years ago, at a select tasting of Bordeaux’s top Grands Crus, restaurant critic Gael Greene took a sip of one $1,000 bottle and declared, “Smells like a horse and tastes like a saddle!” She had correctly identified that unfortunate barnyard smell still common in barrel-aged red wines, the result of contamination by Brettanomyces.
This spoilage yeast, known in the trade as “brett,” has historically been so common that some wines are identified by it. At a low threshold level, it may smell like Band-Aids or cinnamon. I rather like a touch of brett, but TCA makes me gag. Your own response to these flaws may be less fervent (or you may say, “Heck, the bottle is open; let’s drink it!”). Whether or not you tolerate it, either flaw is cause to reject a bottle.
Historically, the most prevalent flaw in wine has been acetic acid — aka volatile acidity or vinegar. It gives a sharp pungency to wine. Named for Acetes, a ship’s captain who protected Bacchus against his captors, acetic acid is created by spoilage bacteria in the presence of oxygen. Ethyl acetate, which smells like nail polish, and acetaldehyde (which is purposely encouraged in sherry) are its cousins. Today, some makers of “natural” wines admire the punch of VA and encourage these funky aromatic qualities that centuries of winemakers have sought to eradicate.
What about more subtle aromas that turn you off? How about chicken soup? That’s my own description of an aroma I often find in young, unoaked chardonnay. And I don’t like it. But I know that it usually will age out of the wine once it is a year old.
Have you ever smelled a white wine that reminded you of peanuts? When I smell peanutty wine, I assume it is from vines grown with insufficient nitrogen or starved for water during veraison, when ripening accelerates. This is a problem common to cold, marginal climates. It’s called ATA or atypical aging.
Then there’s that unspeakable hint of garlic, which you may perceive in white or rosé wines stored in clear glass. It comes from the interaction of the unprotected wine with direct sunlight. Never expose your wine to the sun!
Whether the aromas in wine cause you pleasure or pain, remember that many flaws (like TCA and light-strike) are not the fault of the winemaker. Often, they vary from bottle to bottle. Be willing to give the producer a second chance. Maybe your senses are unusually acute.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.