I kill a tree every year. Despite my environmental inclinations, I buy a real Christmas tree to celebrate the holiday. I just can’t get excited about a fake one with no pine smell. I suppose a "fir-scented" candle might impart some realness to the plastic-and-metal imposter, but my psyche would invariably suffer. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a freakishly perceptive sense of smell. I loathed onions growing up and could smell them sautéing a block away. I’d come galloping into the kitchen, bitching about the bulbous offender and insist that Mom cease her noxious cooking. But my once-troublesome nose serves me well as a wine writer, thrusting itself into wide-mouthed glasses, breathing deeply and waxing philosophic. Oddly fragrant smells flood from my childhood memories, like cat pee, soft leather couch and even caramelized onions (once — in an aged chardonnay). But you don’t need an overly sensitive schnozz to analyze aromas. You can start your own memory-driven smell vocabulary — be it bong water, sweaty socks or overcooked asparagus — or innovate using the conventional catalog of wine descriptors as your springboard.
Traditionally, aromatics originate from three places: the grape variety, the place where the vine was grown and the oak with which the wine comes into contact. Hidden in the grape skins are the fruitiness, tannins and color needed to coax character into the sweet juice. Aromas such as black cherry and spearmint in Cabernet Sauvignons, raspberry and blueberry in pinot noir, and grapefruit or peaches (not to forget cat pee) in sauvignon blanc all emerge from this soft, succulent casing. You can also sniff ripe red cherry instead of black cherry in Merlot, and earthy black pepper in Syrahs, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc. But move the Syrah vine to Australia (where it magically gets renamed Shiraz), and a new slew of indigenous scents emerge — like eucalyptus and bright minerality. Or who can forget the funky, wet-earth smell reminiscent of dog crap in red wines from South Africa? This difference stems from terroir.
Originating from French, the untranslatable word terroir [tair WAHR] encompasses all the natural factors involved in grape growing — sun, rain, altitude and soil characteristics. Soil variation derives from millennia of climatic changes, volcanic activity and limestone settlements that seep flavor into the vine’s roots growing through the layers of sediment. The other factors — sun, rain and altitude — contribute ripeness and character, depending on location. This concept of terroir is why the French parceled their land into quality-designated plots, or appellations, realizing fruit from one vineyard bears a different personality from the grapes grown 50 yards away. In the United States, we call these plots American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs.
Other aromas are introduced with a natural yet manipulated instrument. Oak, used during the fermenting process as well as for aging, is a tool winemakers spend careers perfecting. Those vanilla, butterscotch and caramel flavors in your chardonnay? French or Hungarian oak. American oak, used almost exclusively for red wines since it can kick the shit out of white, imparts dill, scotch and tobacco flavors (I’ll write more about oak in an upcoming column).
But it’s important to note that not every nose or mouth will smell or taste the same thing. I’m particularly sensitive to certain aromas — green pepper, pine, wet slate, black cherries, black pepper, vanilla and, yes, cat pee — because my memory relates to them, but each person carries their own smell baggage. Using standards but also noticing what you whiff in a wine, you can develop your own descriptive vocabulary — even if it’s sautéed onions in butter.