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"No Sniffers Please"

Dec. 15, 2008
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I have a bone to pick with Lou Reed.

Our title comes from a liner note stipulation on Lou Reed's…ahem…"experimental" 1975 Metal Machine Music. Sweet Jane's father and I have a major difference of opinion here. Sniffers are absolutely welcome at The Naked Vine. Sniffing is encouraged, to be perfectly honest.

In fairness, Good Mister Reed is talking about his then-preference for mainlining amphetamines and I'm talking about tasting wine -- context is everything, after all. I also hope this column is easier to handle with your lunch or morning coffee than sixty-four minutes of feedback and distortion. (Lou's week still beats our year, however.)

What's does sniffing have to do with wine, you ask? Well…just about everything.

Taste is delightful, isn't it? From the cool sweetness of ice cream to the smooth indulgence of dark chocolate to the myriad spices of Asian food to the unique flavor of a lover's kiss, we drown ourselves in taste. However, your taste buds only discern four distinct sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. There's conversation about a fifth taste--called "umami"--found in MSG and things like aged cheese-but the jury's out on that one. Everything that you've ever tasted is a combination of those four (or five) sensations.

Scents, however, are a different story. The average human being can discern between two and three thousand different scents. Skilled experts can discern upwards of 15,000. Flavor, then, is a combination of scent and taste. Every flavor in anything you've ever eaten or drunk is an amalgam of taste and smell. When you taste wine -- you're looking for much more than which of the four (or five) tastes are in play. Think I'm kidding? Hold your nose and take a sip from a wine glass. See what you get. Or perhaps think about the last dinner you had during high allergy season. The greatest variation in wines lies in their scents. Thus, wine tasting is, more accurately, largely wine sniffing.

Many of you have probably seen a wine drinker swirling a glass of wine, then burying their nose in it. This little ritual may look like the simple affectation of a wine snob but, honestly, this method is the best way to get a real sense of a wine's flavor. When you swirl a glass of wine (and it does take a little practice to keep from slopping it everywhere), the alcohol in the wine gets exposed to air and evaporates. The evaporating alcohol carries esters -- organic compounds found in the wine -- into the air with it. Many esters have very distinctive scents. When you swirl a glass of wine, dip your honker in, and take a big sniff, your olfactory nerve picks up more of these happy little carbon chains -- giving you a stronger dose of the wine's scent. When you taste a wine, I find it's best to hold it in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing, allowing it to coat your tongue completely. The evaporating alcohol takes the esters into your sinuses while all your taste buds activate. You can then marry those four (or five) tastes on your tongue to the scents of the wine, giving you true flavor.

The wines I've chosen for this installment are varietals with very distinct scents, in case you want to practice…

Chateau St. Michele 2006 Gewrztraminer-- The first time I tried a gewrztraminer, I thought, "Cool. Wine with an umlaut." Thankfully, this particular varietal doesn't conjure Aqua Net nightmares and scary flashbacks of Bulletboys covers. Gewrztraminer was originally cultivated in the Alsace region of France and spread from there to Germany. 'Traminers tend to be extremely fragrant, but they often don't "taste like they smell." This entry from the Pacific Northwest is no exception. You can't miss the melons and fresh flowers on your first sniff. From the sniff, you'd then think this would be a syrupy sweet wine, but there's a pleasant level of dryness to the finish and some real spice -- particularly cloves and cinnamon. It's certainly not a "sweet" wine -- but it's got more sugar to it than, say, a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. If you've got some spicy Szechuan Chinese or Thai, snag a bottle of this for $9-10, and you'll be dining well. (And you pronounce it Gee-VERTZ-truh-meaner)

Smoking Loon 2006 Viognier -- Much like last installment's malbec, the French traditionally used Viognier (pronounced VEE-yawn-yay) as a blending grape in white wine. Over the last five or six years, Viognier has become one of the hotter varietals in the white wine market. Viognier tends a friendly, fragrant wine -- which leads to its current popularity. Much like a partner on a Saturday night date, a wine that smells nice makes the evening pass much more pleasantly. The Smoking Loon Viognier has almost a perfumey scent when you give it a swirl -- like aromatherapy. However, it's not all that sweet -- more acidic and fruity. Very refreshing on its own, or if you're a smoked salmon fan. About $8-9.

Cline 2006 Zinfandel -- Zinfandels are great examples of fragrant red wines. Cline starts with a strong scent of licorice and berries. On your tongue, this wine gives you a quick burst of cherries and blackberries, but quickly turns tannic and dry with a little bit of pepper. The finish is long, peppery, and dry. If you're going to have a steak, this one isn't a bad call. If you're feeling ambitious, buy two bottles. Drink one now and write down what you think. Hide the other one in the back of a closet. Next year about this time, pull it out and try it. I guarantee it's going to taste like an entirely different (and probably much better) wine. If you break it out in public, your friends with will think you brought a $30 bottle to the party. But for now, you can spend around $11 and have something quite tasty.

Until next time, sniff to your heart's content...


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