The core experience in wine — whether good or bad — comes from the aromas and flavors. If you’re someone more attuned to liquor, it might be overwhelming to take a whiff of wine because of all the different fruity notes, for example. Some items might be the same — florals, oak — but the rest may seem muddled or indistinct.
Bianca Bosker talks about her journey to discover the nuances of wine in her book Cork Dork (which I highly recommend). Disciplined training of the palate holds one key to this success, but some of the work can also come from early nurturing: specifically, building that network between smell, taste and memory from an young age.
Consider — how often does that happen here in the States, cultivating a keen sense of smell?
Granted, the answer to that question will vary greatly depending on your background and upbringing. There’s not a lot of strong sensory recall when it comes to most foods, particularly fresh fruit, if you look at my personal history. Should I walk by to catch a whiff of something cooking, nine times out of ten I would struggle to identify the specific elements of the dish. Sure, I might figure out that there’s meat, and perhaps herbs of some kind, and hey, there’s some tomato… but that’s really it.
Bosker posits (with accompanying research) that much of this may be culturally-based, that developing the sense of smell doesn’t have as high a priority here as in other countries.
It’s an interesting exercise: which of your five senses would you willingly give up, if you had to pick one? Would you choose to lose your nose?
When discussing wine, there are three categories of descriptors:
- Primary. These come entirely from the grapes and their viticulture. Each species of grape has certain telltales, but quite a bit of overlap exists. Primaries consist of mostly fruit, though certain vegetabes, herbs or herbal notes might also fall in this category. Florals for the most part also reside here — believe it or not, some wines really do smell like roses (try gewürztraminer if curiosity strikes).
- Secondary. Unlike primaries and tertiaries which can sometimes cross over and intersect (because that’s not confusing as hell), secondary aromas and flavors comes from three (count them, one-two-three-ah-ah-ah) sources, all a direct result of winemaking. Remember this for secondary: oak-malo-yeast.
- Oak should be pretty easy to catch with vanilla, baking spices, or at times cedar, wood shavings or even dill, dependent on the type of oak used.
- “Malo,” is short for malolactic fermentation, a second stage fermentation that winemakers use to add texture to their product, essentially turning harsh malic acid — think apples — to softer lactic acid (yes, like milk and cheese). Yogurt, cheese, even buttery flavors can come from allowing this step to occur in winemaking.
- Yeast comes from… well, yeast is used for the fermentation process as a lead role, and sometimes it leaves behind notes of sourdough, fresh pastries, or even cheese. While disconcerting at first, it’s really yummy in wine. Trust me.
- Tertiary. This category has everything to do with age.
- Age with oxygen. Cut open an apple and let it sit for a while on the counter, and it begins to brown — that’s oxidation. While too much can destroy a wine, using judicious amounts of oxygen at certain points in winemaking actually creates interesting flavors like nuts, toffee, or even caramel.
- Age of fruit. How do we preserve fruit before it goes bad? We can bake it, dry it, cook it… each of which changes the character of that fruit as opposed to when it’s fresh. Compare a fresh cherry to one baked in a pie, and they’re two very different scents.
- Age in bottle. Once wine is made and allowed to sit safely in bottle, some very interesting elements come into play. White wines might develop notes of hay, petrol (looking at you, Riesling), or honey. Red wines could gain instead gain nuances of mushrooms, fresh game, leather, cocoa or even barnyard (!).
Hopefully, I didn’t beat you over the head with too much detail? There’s so much to explore with wine… as I’m sure I’ve said at least a dozen times by now. But who knows — maybe this is the first post of mine you read, so it bears a mention!
Now that you know a bit more about the categories of flavor, I’ll move ahead into tonight’s wine: the “Underwood Pinot Noir” from Oregon by producer Union Wine Company.
Recall from yesterday’s post that Pinot Noir is a finicky beast, prone to diseases and general viticultural melodrama because it’s so thin skinned. It desires cool climate, but not too cool, nor too hot — luckily for many of us, parts of Oregon fall into a Goldilocks Zone for growing Pinot Noir. For you geography fiends, it’s worth mentioning that those very parts of Oregon fall along a similar latitude range as the Burgundy region of France, also famous for their Pinot Noir.
Some opening notes about Union Wine Company:
- One of the two head winemakers is female, a big reason I picked this particular producer.
- The Underwood Pinot Noir doesn’t state anything on their label other than “Oregon Grown” with regards to sourcing, meaning that their grapes come from across the state as opposed to one specific region like the well-known Willamette Valley.
- Tonight’s wine will be poured from a can. Yes, you can find decent wine in a can. No, not all of your favorites will be quite as handy to take around on a hike or bike ride. Union Wine Company offers several options in aluminum, including a Pinot Gris, Bubbles, Rosé, and a “Nouveau” Pinot Noir made in the style of Beaujolais Nouveau.
Let’s pop open this can and give it a go, shall we? (Pfft, I might be watching too much British Baking Show with phrasing like that… )
Week 10 Challenge Wine:
“Underwood Pinot Noir” by Union Wine Company… in a can
Producer: Union Wine Company
Region: Oregon, USA
Style: Dry red
Grape: Pinot Noir
Clear, pale ruby. Not a flaw so much as an interesting observation that the contents of the can were under pressure, so there is a tiny bit of fizz lingering in the wine after pouring. It’s not bubbling, per se, but more bubbles are present than if I had poured from a wine bottle.
I’m feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu… oh wait. Nope. I’m just drinking Pinot Noir again, which means…
…*ahem.* The nose on this is mostly clean, but I can tell it’s been completely denied access to oxygen through storage in a can, whereas a traditional wine bottle (corked or screw-capped) allows a tiny bit of exchange. I’m going to let it sit for a minute to see if this faint odor of wet socks dissipates.
Three Pokémon battles later… or approximately ten minutes…
Things have resolved significantly, and my nose less offended. Primary flavors include fresh cherry, currant, cranberry and underripe plum. Vanilla and cinnamon are present and both indicative of oak use (remember, that’s secondary). The wine is also earthy, like rich dark loam, suggesting a bit of age (tertiary), but there’s not a vintage statement on the can, so I’m not sure just how old it actually is.
Decent complexity on the nose for a canned wine, with overall medium intensity of aromas. Will the palate follow suit?
Dry, with medium plus acidity, medium-low tannin that has a slightly grainy texture, medium alcohol and medium body.
Flavors include red currant, red plum, red cherry, toasty cedar, and forest floor in medium minus intensity. Still some complexity, but nowhere near as varied as on the nose, and it has a short finish.
The tannins, while medium-low, build up quickly on the palate with subsequent sips. It makes me want some cheese and crackers to munch on and break that up; definitely have food handy with this wine.
For a $6 can of wine, this Pinot Noir had a pretty good showing. I would likely pick it out as a Pinot Noir based on the aromas alone in a blind tasting event.
With regard to quality, my rating sits at a solid “good.” Lack of balance in elements combine with a quick vanishing act of flavors on the palate; the best thing this wine has going for it is complexity, albeit in middling and inconsistent levels of intensity. Clearly, this is a “drink now” wine, especially considering the storage medium of an aluminum can.
The wine is fun and tasty enough for pairing with lighter fare without tons of crazy flavors that might overpower it completely. It’s more of a snacking sipper than a full meal companion in my opinion: casual as opposed to formal. Consider having it handy at summer soirées or garden parties with light hors d’oeuvres — shrimp cocktail, salmon spirals, and pasta salad come to mind.
Yes, this is a red wine, but it’s definitely on the lighter side and would stand up just fine to seafood, especially with broth-based or red sauces as accompaniment.
Tomorrow brings a shift in gears to Pinot Grigio. Stay tuned.