I’ve always had a tenuous grasp on reality, I trust my imagination more than my senses. Before I started my sommelier training I used to think that they were mutually exclusive. In the past I’d go to wine tastings and wait for the host to tell me what I was experiencing. I was too afraid of getting it wrong to contribute to the conversation. Forest floor? Oyster shells? Wet rock minerality? I’ve been to enough forests, oceans, and rivers to let my imagination fill the gaps for my senses. I’m familiar with the taste of raspberries, mushrooms and plums; and the smell of violets, leather and tobacco smoke. I just never trusted those sensory notes in the wine unless someone told me they were there.
Now that I’m working in the industry, I’m learning that the characteristics of the wines aren’t imaginary but are a result of the vineyard management and the wine-making. The first time that our winemaker took me through the line-up in the Black Estate tasting room I scribbled down percentages of new oak, soil types at each vineyard, days of skin contact, and weather conditions for the vintages. Afterwards he asked me what I thought of the wine without ever telling me what it tasted like. He was asking what characteristics stood out to me, but I went blank, overwhelmed with numbers and geology. “I dunno,” I replied. “I just like all of them, they’re all super good!” He smiled, and in his best deadpan replied, “and that is why you’re the perfect employee.” But I had disappointed him because I hadn’t actually opened myself up to the experience.
I’ve always loved going to wine tastings, for the same reasons that I enjoy performance poetry. I love listening to people talk about something that they are passionate about, that comes from their personal experience. I know it holds meaning to the person reciting it, even if I can’t always relate to it. And like a poetry reading, I experienced the talk in the tasting room more like a performance art piece rather than something that I could participate in.
“I’ve always had a tenuous grasp on reality, I trust my imagination more than my senses. Before I started my sommelier training I used to think that they were mutually exclusive.”
I’m not sure where to draw the line between my senses and my imagination, but these days I don’t let fear of getting it wrong stop me from experiencing something. It’s important to open yourself up when you’re tasting, allow yourself to be a bit vulnerable. Sometimes an aroma or a flavour will come into my head and I’m not sure if I’m sensing a note in the wine or if something in my memory or subconscious has been triggered and I’m just imagining it. But if I am imagining it and I experience it as I imagine it, does that mean that it’s really there?
I may never know the answer to that question, but I do think that it’s important to consider nuances in flavours. With the industrialisation of food production we’re trained to desire sameness in tastes rather than variations. Processed foods may look different, but they are largely produced from the same fillers. Salt and sugar take the place of distinct flavours. Our palates have become conditioned to the bland, but it is sublime to remind ourselves of the myriad of sensations available to us in the world.
“With the industrialisation of food production we’re trained to desire sameness in tastes rather than variations. Our palates have become conditioned to the bland, but it is sublime to remind ourselves to taste for differences again.”
I remember being curious about smells and tastes as a child. When I was a kid my parents used to take me on hiking trips. My dad says that he’d find me on sitting cross legged on the ground with my mouth stuffed full of rocks like a chipmunk. “You seemed to be quite selective, only the granite or agate would make it in, you’d reject the quartz.” He used to have to pry them out of my mouth. I guess I’ve always been into that wet rock minerality. I remember I used to scratch the barks of pine trees to smell the vanilla and butterscotch sap. As adults we’re not used to using vocabulary for a range of tastes and smells, but it’s refreshing to train ourselves to taste for differences again.
Part of the key to wine tasting is to be curious, to make an effort to switch on those sensors. Take the time to notice what you’re drinking, pay attention to what you’re experiencing, think about it, appreciate it. I may never have a super palate, but it occurred to me that like any other skill, I am capable of learning through study and practice. And if my training regimen included trips to the wine shop and tasting nights with friends, I was up to the challenge. So I got serious about working in the tasting room at Black Estate in order to get paid to talk about wine all day, and I enrolled in a wine course to start my sommelier journey.
“Once you fall in love with a land, it’s hard not to love the food and beverages that come from that place.”
In the tasting room I’ve come to realise that people often get intimidated by wine knowledge. It’s like talking about art, people dismiss it when they don’t understand it, they get defensive. To me, the tasting room is similar to a farmer’s market. Farmers will talk to you in detail about the difference between the varieties of heirloom tomatoes, or the conditions of the land and the harvest. It’s the same with wine. Most days the winemakers are more likely to talk about the soil in the vineyard rather than the forest floor notes in the wine. Falling in love with the Waipara wine region helped me to understand the wines there. Once you fall in love with a land, it’s hard not to love the food and beverages that come from that place.
My wine course involved lots of homework, part of which was tasting a range of wines. I’ve never had much faith in my palate, but if I can taste the difference between a mushroom and a cherry, why shouldn’t I be able to pick out those flavours in a wine? Firstly, when presented with a mushroom and a cherry you have other clues like colour, shape and texture. We’re much more attuned to sight and touch than to taste and smell. The differences between wines are much more subtle than the differences between fungus and fruits. Also, wines have so many flavours present that they are likely to have fungus and fruits together in one glass.
“The tasting room is similar to a farmer’s market. Farmers will talk to you in detail about the difference between the varieties of heirloom tomatoes or the conditions of the land and the harvest. Most days the winemakers are more likely to talk about the soil in the vineyard rather than the forest floor notes in the wine.”
I find that once I’ve identified a scent, I can usually place it the next time I come across it. The aroma of a peach tree near a friend’s house was so strong that it completely enveloped me as I passed. The next time I sniffed a familiar Chardonnay, I was able to identify strong peach notes that hadn’t been as apparent before. But there is a learning curve, and it can be frustrating to perceive something without recognising it. A glass of Beaujolais reminded me of something from my childhood — caramel apple? No. It was something fun, and chewy — turkish delight? No. I looked up the tasting notes and after I read ‘bubblegum,’ I put the glass to my nose and the aroma was so strong that I don’t know how I could have ever mistaken it for anything else — except for the fact that ‘bubblegum’ was not an aroma that I expected to find in wine.
The more I experiment with wine, the more I find that I can store the flavours in my subconscious. I’m creating a sensory library that I can draw on. I enjoy comparing my own notes to those of international wine writers and reviewers. I’m comforted by the similarities, but I’m also struck by the differences. The variety in people’s experiences of the same wine is amazing to me, and it’s present even amongst the professionals. Everyone’s palate’s is different, there is no definitive right answer. At industry wine tastings I make notes of my own observations, but other people’s comments add to my vocabulary and to the descriptors that I’ll be able to call on later. In the words of a friend that came to a tasting I hosted, “I was afraid this was going to be really wine wanky, but I loved sitting around your lounge talking about how wine can smell like bubblegum and old band-aids.”
And yes, both bubblegum and old band-aids are aromas that occur in wine. I’ve tasted tropical Chardonnay that’s like coconuts. A co-worker gave me a glass of ‘tomato juice’ for breakfast that turned out to be a herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc. Floral notes such as roses in Guwurtz or violets in Syrah are like a trip to the botanic gardens. On a tasting trip to Marlborough wine region, a friend’s wine of the day was an aged Riesling that smelled like a plastic shower curtain.
Contrary to what I previously believed, these smells aren’t just magic. They come from the composition of the grapes, the conditions in the vineyard, the winemaking techniques, the fermentation process, and the changes that occur in wine during its maturation. The bubblegum in Beaujolais is a result of carbonic maceration, a winemaking technique where the grapes are fermented whole, inside their skins. Band-aid aroma comes from Brettanomyces, a genus of wild yeast that hangs out in vineyards and wineries. ‘Brett’ is responsible for aromas ranging from bacon and smoke to sweaty gym socks and rancid cheese. Coconut in Chardonnay could be a result of ageing in American oak or the vines growing in a warmer climate. Methoxypyrazines (MPs) in the skins and stems of Sauvignon Blanc cause vegetal characteristics in the wine. The concentration of MPs is highest in early harvest (or unripe) grapes, and is more prominent in wines that have had an intense extraction by pressing in the winery. Floral notes come from chemical compounds in the skins of the grape varietals that are similar, or the same, to those found in flowers. Higher concentrations of TDN (the carotenoid-derived compound causing Riesling’s petrol notes) are a result of sun exposure, and can be controlled by shading the grapes with leaf canopy. The petrol aroma is most common in bottle aged Rieslings, as the compounds responsible for fruity or floral flavours break down earlier. Although I am learning that the smells themselves don’t appear by magic; the interactions between the environment, the winemaking, and the chemical processes still seem quite magical.
Cataloguing the tastes in wines has made me curious about smells in the wider world. It’s hard to identify an aroma in a wine if I’m not familiar with it in nature. And when is the last time you’ve really smelled pencil shavings or oyster shells? Linden or acacia? Blackcurrant leaf or sandalwood? Now I pay attention to scents, smelling things so that I can store them in my subconscious and recognise them later on.
“Bubblegum, band-aid, coconuts, tomato juice, floral notes, old shower curtains. Contrary to what I previously believed, these smells aren’t just magic – they come from the composition of the grapes, the conditions in the vineyard, the winemaking techniques, the fermentation process, and the changes that occur in wine during its maturation. Still; the interactions between the environment, the winemaking, and the chemical processes seem quite magical.”
My co-workers at the winery are self-proclaimed ‘smellers’. Freshly dried linen, foraged fennel, cinnamon bark — they shove these things so close to their nostrils that the items are in danger of disappearing inside. And not just smell, but taste too. They made me lick a battery. It was a lesson, battery acid-like acidity in wine can be a fault from picking too early (before the grapes have fully ripened) or over cropping (when there is too much fruit so it doesn’t ripen properly). I am apparently one of the few people at the vineyard that did not lick batteries as a child (too busy shoving rocks in my mouth?) but having done so as an adult, I can tell you that it is sour and tingly. And a little shocking.
I’m fascinated by the way that aromas and flavours can trigger memories. A subtly grassy Pouilly-Fumé reminded me of a series of art prints of grass swaying in a field. As I drank the wine, I could see the images quite clearly. A cheap glass of sparkling wine had the imitation banana flavour of a taffy reminiscent of those I ate at childhood baseball games. I felt like I was back in the dusty bleachers of a hot Texas summer. Other people have these references too. In the tasting room, a recent guest declared that one of our Pinot Noirs tasted like Christmas. It wasn’t due to any fruitcake notes in the wine, but because it is his parents’ special occasion wine. He immediately began recounting memories of family holidays.
I find myself making associations all the time, not just with the flavours but also with the characteristics of the sites. When I learned that one of the vineyards at Black Estate has calcium carbonate deposits mixed in with its heavy clay soils, I immediately thought of a beach I know that is made from calcium carbonate exo-skeletons of tiny calcifying planktons. Beautiful under a microscope, although a bit rough on the feet.
I started thinking about all of the planktons from the sea that ended up in our vineyard soils over the years, helping to grow the Chardonnay. The ’15 Chardonnay has this wonderful saline quality that is not something I ever thought would appeal to me in a wine. Turns out, I love it, its so mouth-watering and it reminds me of the ocean. I imagine that it’s the tiny creatures from the sea that are making my Chardonnay so salty and delicious. It’s my favourite bottle to take on surf trips, I like to think that all the little plankton skeletons would appreciate their wine traveling back to the beach.
Which brings me back to the link between the imagination and the senses. The desires of the plankton skeletons are entirely a product of my imagination. Calcium carbonate deposits in the soil don’t actually have a preference about where I drink the Chardonnay. It’s a bit silly for me to project those feelings of longing and contentment onto a component of the vineyard soil. But I am the one drinking the wine, and I do have preferences about how I experience it. If I get pleasure by making a connection between the soils at the vineyard, the flavours in the wine, and the setting where I am enjoying it; it would be silly not to indulge my imagination. Because after all, our senses are not static. Sensory experience is contextual, it grows out of place and personal history. It isn’t something that happens to us, it is something that we participate in.