People ask – can you really smell cherry and tar in wine? And how do you take wine notes on the Sabbath

When I put my wines notes together my friends always ask me how I can do it. Did I really taste grapefruit or mushroom? Honestly, I did not realize how I was doing it originally, but as I tasted more and more wine, I realized I was actually smelling unique aromas and tasting unique flavors. To start I knew I was smelling green notes or tasting tropical fruit, but it took me time to really pull the mint or the pineapple/guava from a glass of wine. Initially, I did not realize what I was doing but then one day my wife shows up with this wheel and hands it to me saying, “Enjoy”! WOW! I took one look at the wheel and all of a sudden I realized I was living the wheel! After a bit of investigation I realized that the wheel is called the Wine Aroma Wheel. The genius of the wheel is that it scientifically describes wine flavors and aromas from their most generic all the way to their most specific. Now of course, the wheel could not possibly denote every single wine flavor or aroma, still, it lists many of the common aromas and flavors. The genius of the wheel is its circular encoding!

To be honest, detecting aromas at the start is difficult to some. For fun try to describe what a pineapple smells like. It may look like a large pinecone, but it smells NOTHING like one. A pineapple is highly citric in nature and sweet at the same time, very few things out there are like that, hence it being part of the tropical family of aromas and tastes. If you read my notes they gyrate from the purely academic nose, mouth, mid palate, finish style to the poetic and nostalgic, though always giving data about the wine. So, is a wine really smoking a fat stogy while wearing a long leather coat and lying on a bed of vanilla? Of course not, it is simply a poetic way to say the wine has notes of vanilla, tobacco, and a mouth feel with leather. Still, they are a far cry from each other, and to the beginner they may both be hard to see in a glass of wine.

So, along comes Dr. Ann Noble, a sensory chemist who earned her Ph.D. in Food science from the University of Massachusetts. She was hired by the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) in 1974 to work in their sensory research program. After studying the techniques and application of wine tasting, Noble discovered that there was no objective framework or widely agreed upon terminology that a wine taster could use to describe things such as “earthy” aromas or the different smells of various fruits that can show up in a wine. In 1984, her research lead her to develop the “Aroma Wheel”. Since then the wine wheel has been used by hundreds of thousands of people wanting to be able to codify and describe, in a fashion that is uniformly (more on that later) accepted, just exactly what they are smell and taste.

The average newbie is now able to smell a wine and have words to go along with what they are smell. Trust me, the first time I “smelled” banana in a Pinotage, I had no idea it was banana! No chance. Still, once I realized it was something fruity, I went on a quest to figure it out and came upon the fact that Pinotage does commonly exhibit a banana like smell, so I now locked that smell away, to use later in life.

Now there my friends is the second REAL rub. Sure, you can have a list of every aroma that anyone has ever smelled in a wine, and it will still help you diddlysquat. Why? Because you need to be able to associate that smell with the wine. Sure, Dr. Noble helped us out by serving up the common aromas and flavors on a silver platter, but now it is up to us to associate what we “smell” with what the wheel says! Further, even if someone or something helps you with the association, the first time, you need to be able to do that again and again. That is why practice, wine tastings, and more wine tastings, is the true tool to anyone who wants to take this thing called oenology seriously.

Do not blame the wine wheel when you smell something and you say those dreaded words: “What is that aroma or flavor on the finish”? That lies in your hands to complete and the smell or flavor may well not even be on the wheel. Many times I ask folks what aroma or flavor is on the finish or the mid palate or the front of the mouth and invariably we all end up without a clue. Do not worry, this is all part of the learning experience, and you should feel free to lean on folks who have blazed the trail before you and know a thing or two more than you do. A classic compilation of rabbinical teachings known as Ethics of the Fathers states, “The shy person does not learn.” Since the shy person is afraid to ask, he misses out on opportunities to hear new insights and gain clarity on issues in which he has a certain lack of comprehension. Ask your friends and family and get them involved, it can be a fun and wholesome activity, as long as it does NOT dominate the dinner or lunch conversation. As the other saying goes: you do not want to be “that” guy. Actually, many times I come up empty and I email or post of Daniel Rogov’s forum, and Daniel is wont to say that: aromas (even more than flavors, tactile sensations or visual impressions) are as much a Rorschach test of the personality of the person perceiving than they are a measure of absolute reality.

When we recently tasted some Syrah(s), a friend of mine said hey I smell something like plastic! I replied, well what you probably mean is tar (a common smell in Syrah) and he agreed. Not till later did we check on the wheel to see that tar, plastic, kerosene, and diesel fuel, were lumped together under Petroleum/Chemical.

I always laugh when I talk about tar or diesel fuel because my wife asks two very logical questions:

  1. How do you know what diesel fuel tastes like
  2. How could diesel fuel be nice

I am always quick to answer that I actually tasted gasoline once, so I know exactly what it tastes like! Further, it tastes fine, because it is like petrol, not actually as toxic as petrol, and is beautiful in a Riesling. Now, to be fair, one does not need to actually have been stupid enough to taste gasoline to know what it tastes like – why? Simple, because you know what it should taste like after you smelled it! When you pump gas you know what gasoline smells like, what you may have a problem with is associated that smell with a flavor.

That my friends is the third and last hard hurdle to tasting wine. People tell me that the step from smelling something you know, like gasoline that you are actually pumping at the time, to knowing what it would taste like, if they were to be so stupid, and suicidal, is not so easy. That jump is not a large one for me, so maybe I am blessed, but I think it gets easier with practice, yep, were talking about practice (sorry I could not help myself)!!

What started out as a simple little article that I was going to write about the tool I used when starting to enjoy wine, along with a different tool that I use when tasting wine on the Sabbath, when we cannot write. What I found was that while the wheel is appreciated by Elliot Essman, TLC, Mr.Howell, Mr. Lambert, Mz. Alley, and The Nibble, and many others, believe it or not there are some none believers. Some are financially driven, some do not like the physical format, and some like David Duman and commenters have clear issues with the wheel and its content.

Personally, I have no issues with the wheel. Of course it cannot list all the aromas and tastes and it is still a killer good tool for people who really want more out of a wine experience, other than the ole goody fallback – that is a good wine. Of course, as one progresses in their quest to better appreciate wine, they will lose the wheel as fast as they lost their training wheel in their youth (come to think of it was that her motivation 🙂 ). Still, they will fall and get back up, and take a peek at the wheel until they have truly weaned themselves from the tempestuous curvy siren. Then they may well choose to progress to De Long’s tool, or to vinography’s free tool, or to one of their own. In the end we all win and the world I hope is a happier and more educated place.

One final note, there are many physical tools to help you learn a how to differentiate a quince from an apple, or a lemon from a grapefruit, in a glass of wine. The most famous one is called: Le Nez (The Nose in French). Le Nez sells many kits and I have not bought any of them and I have no relationship with them. Still, of all of the pre-bottled options out there, it seems to be the best one. The Le Nez of course is a tool to train your nose only! A far cheaper tool is to go to my site or go to Rogov’s site and search for the wine you are about to taste. Check out the wine notes and then go and buy the fruits and vegetables (many you may already have) and when you open the bottle start by smelling the wine and then smelling the fruit or vegetable or herb or spice. Continue on through the notes and see if you could smell or taste any of them. I hope either tool will be of help to you and make the experience even more enjoyable.

Myself, I have moved from all the tools and yes, sometimes I forget or miss some aromas or flavors when doing a large tasting, but the good news is that I am learning my blind spots, and I am compensating by taking notice of them.

On the Sabbath, things get a bit more complicated. You see, we cannot write or type on anything or with anything on the Sabbath. So what is my process for wine notes on the Sabbath? Initially, I remembered all my notes just fine. As my wine collection grew and my interest in drinking it down grew in equal proportion, my memory became a poor tool. That is when I went to the web looking for basic wine note taking cards and then adapting them to be usable on the Sabbath. Yeah I hear you, I hear you, and yes there are ways to write on the Sabbath! Think pledge cards my friends! How do we get donors to pledge donations on the high holidays when writing is not allowed? Yep, bend down tabs! So download the pdf file I have attached to the left, print out either the white wine, red wine, or both slides, and then make cuts to the left and right of the words to make them bendable! I reuse them every week, so 10 to 20 are all I need to rotate through and keep them fresh looking. As I use a particular page too much, I remove them from circulation, and then print and cut around some new ones. I am sure there has to be some entrepreneurs out there willing to do the work for the huge and burgeoning Sabbath observant oenophile market! Until then, I am happy to have an option, and more than willing to share it with all of you.

Yes, these pages are also limited in the possible bendable tabs that can be exposed! So please do not take your wrath out on me! Instead improve upon it and share your ideas with the community or better yet, dig deep into that font of entrepreneurial spirit and make a better mouse trap!

There you have it! I hope these tools have helped someone and until next time, this is your intrepid kosher wine news anchor signing out and wishing you all safe and continued education in the wide world of wine tasting!


Posted on May 18, 2011, in Wine Industry, Wine Tasting. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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