When Wine Talk Gets Weird
Why you may actually love a big glass of tar, petrol, or barnyard.
I’d just rubbed my thumb across the chalkboard and licked it, in a vain attempt to explain what I meant by the “chalky” finish of the Sancerre we had just tasted — this in comparison to the grapefruit-and-cat-pee New Zealand sauvignon blanc we were also tasting.
“Cat pee? Ew,” said Malbec’s roommate, who was dressed as a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, and who’d previously told me that she’d bought Cupcake Vineyards’ Red Velvet wine because she was “excited to know if it would actually taste like a red velvet cupcake.”
As we tasted our next two wines, someone stopped me when I’d inadvertently used the au courant wine-geek term “minerality” to describe the Chablis we tasted in comparison to the Napa Valley chardonnay.
“Wait,” said the wrestler who sits in the back row. “Minerality?”
“Think of the sensation of licking stones.”
He looked at me blankly. “Do you go around licking stones?”
“Kinda gross,” said one of the communications majors.
“No, no,” I pleaded. “Picture licking pretty, smooth stones. Not dirty ones.”
I further compounded my floundering explanation by uttering what must be the worst word in the wine lexicon: mouthfeel. Let me be clear: You simply cannot say “mouthfeel” in a college classroom and expect 20 students — and their professor — to keep a straight face. I knew this because the week before I’d made a similar mistake, referring to a wine’s “creamy mouthfeel.”
Later, after we’d finally gotten to the reds, and I opened a big, monstrous Gigondas with a bit of that telltale Rhone aroma. I poured it and waited. There were lots of scrunched up noses. “Ugh, funky,” said the wrestler. “What is that smell?”
I hesitated … and then asked, “Does anyone get a hint of what wine people call ummmm … a barnyard aroma?”
“Barnyard! You mean like cow manure?”
“Ew,” said the girl dressed like cabernet sauvignon who’d hoped a wine tasted like red velvet cupcakes, with her arms crossed. “That is totally gross.”
Please don’t misunderstand: It wasn’t the wines that my students found gross. My students liked the wines, loved some of them, even the Gigondas with the barnyard aroma. No, it was the descriptions — the standard wine-world terms — that were turning them off.
Overall, it has been an amazing, inspiring experience to teach a university course called The Geography of Wine, as I’m doing this fall. Everyone in the wine business is chattering about these kids in the gigantic Millennial generation that are going to reinvigorate sales and save the industry. Teaching this course has been like having a front-row seat to observe how people in their early 20s experience wine and learn about it. It’s been amazing to watch their knowledge grow exponentially week by week.
But if there has been one stumbling block, it is when we leave the comforting aromas and flavors of fruits and flowers and herbs and enter into more challenging tasting territory: Minerality. Chalk. Tar. Tobacco. Animal. Farmyard. Petrol.
“Why would we want to drink a wine that tastes like these things?” my students want to know.
It’s a reasonable and valid question. Look, I tell them, if you’re happy and content with fruity, pleasurable red wines redolent of berries and cherries and plums or zippy, easy-to-drink whites with tangy citrus and orchards full of apples and pears… well, then that’s what you should drink without feeling any need to move beyond that. Wine should be, foremost, about pleasure — and pleasure is personal. There’s a reason that romantic comedies with happy endings, sunny, catchy pop music, mac n’ cheese, whipped cream vodka, and wearing Ugg boots with pajama pants remain popular.
But if we think more deeply about pleasure, we realize it isn’t always so straightforward or even comfortable. After all, why do so many of us love sad poems, disturbing horror films, or intense, subtitled psychological dramas. Why am I capable of loving Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” or The Smith’s “Meat Is Murder” or Elliott Smith’s “From a Basement on the Hill” — while at the same time I can enjoy T. Pain, Taylor Swift, and dancing with my kids to Psy’s “Gangnam Style”?
With the arts, we inherently understand that without the darker, more confounding elements, there can be no light. Wine is no different. Just as in novels or films or musical compositions, the more complex and ambitious the wine, the more unique and potentially discomforting aromas, textures, and flavors we’ll find.
One crucial step for the novice wine drinker is to move beyond just fruit and to embrace the concept of minerality. What is minerality? For me it takes many shapes and forms. Is it like wet stones? Chalk? Slate? Flint? Talcum? Shells? Like water from a well or a cistern? If I’m being really expressive, it reminds me of a certain bracing drink of cold, fresh water that I once took from a rocky pond in an Icelandic glacial meadow, where I was led in the midnight sun by a beautiful Icelandic girl. Um… yeah… see how hard it is to pinpoint this thing called minerality?
So much ink has been spilled on the subject of minerality, some of the best discussions launched by fine colleagues such as Jordan Mackay, Alder Yarrow, and Steve Heimoff — who says, “I can’t define ‘minerality,’ but I know it when I feel it.” Clark Smith, in an article for Wines & Vines, writes that “minerality is not an aroma, nor is it a flavor by mouth” but rather “an energetic buzz in the wine’s finish, almost like an electrical current running through the throat.”
Beyond minerality, other hard-to-define elements happen because of aging. Wine is, after all, a living thing, and as the years pass, magic happens inside the bottle as fruity and floral qualities transform into something more savory. That’s why we find a well-aged riesling that smells like gasoline, a decade-old Brunello di Montalcino with aromas of old leather, a cellared Barolo wafting hints of tar and asphalt.
But it’s not always aging. In just the past week, I’ve tasted young Bordeaux Superieur and Spanish monastrell with notes of sweet chewing tobacco, and a young, earthy Madiran with a funky whiff of the cow pasture.
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” I can still hear my students say. “But why would I want to drink wines like these?”
It’s the kind of controversial question debated by wine professionals. For years, it was understood that classic vintages of some of the world’s finest wines, say Chateau de Beaucastel from Chateauneaf-du-Pape or Penfold’s Grange from Australia, would emit a touch of barnyard manure in the nose. The reason for this is well known: That “barnyard” smell comes from the brettanomyces yeast — known as “brett” in wine circles. While it used to be tolerated much more in Old World wines, influential critics and judges have begun to view brett as a serious flaw in wine.
A similar sort of reconsideration is happening with the “petrol” aromas found in riesling. Now, first of all, the fact that we fussily borrow the British term “petrol,” rather than using the American “gasoline” shows how uneasy we feel about this aroma and how to describe it. But a good riesling with at least a few years of aging, has wonderful petroleum aromas that range from those little rubber Superballs that I used to play with as a child to the smell of the pumps at a small country gas station on a crisp spring afternoon — and this quality is sought-after by riesling fans.
Since hip, young sommeliers have been on an evangelical mission to turn us all onto the pleasures of riesling, the enjoyment of petrol notes is becoming more mainstream. But since it’s still off-putting to novice drinkers, many winemakers have moved to downplay the word petrol. You rarely see it on labels, for instance. The German Wine Institute has omitted mention of petrol in its German-language version of the official Wine Aroma Wheel.
Some winemakers, in some cases, have even declared petrol a defect. Famed winemakers like Olivier Humbrecht, of Zind-Humbrect in Alsace, and Michel Chapoutier (the famed Rhone producer who now makes wine in Alsace) have declared within the past couple years that young rieslings should never smell of petrol. For these winemakers, petrol doesn’t begin to show itself until about five years in the bottle.
For me, with all of the wilder, funkier flavors in wine, it’s always a question of balance and context. Take the barnyard quality. Like many people also into craft beer, I love Belgian saison and limbic beers — which have a “bretty” character — and so a little brett doesn’t immediately turn me off. But there is a line, however moveable, that can be crossed.
The other night, a prominent wine critic/blogger visited my wine class to talk about Australian wines. The topic of minerality and petrol came up as we tasted Clare Valley riesling. After class, we repaired to a nearby wine bar with an adventurous list. One of my students decided to be brave and order a glass of Cantina Sociale Coopertiva Copertino Riserva 2004, from Puglia — and I ordered one too.
When they arrived I took the first sniff and said, “It’s animalistic.” He took a whiff and said, “Wow. Oh. My. God. This is like Sex Panther,” referring to the cologne from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
He started passing it around to the others. The wrestler leaned in and took a whiff, and said, “It smells like a barn.”
“It smells like a horse’s butt,” said Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Finally, our wine critic guest took a sip, and told me, with a wink, that he’d consider sending it back — he being of the camp that viewed brett as a flaw. Our server walked by right then, and politely disagreed. “I really like this one,” she said. “I love a funky a wine like this.”
As for me? Well, at first, I thought it crossed that delicate line from pleasure to bordering on gross. But once I let it sit for a moment, and the server brought our stinky cheese and a plate full of cured ham… well, we were back once again in the world of pleasure.
Soon enough, I ordered a second glass. • 19 November 2012
I’ve selected some wines below to showcase several of the aromas, textures, and flavors that challenge novice drinkers. These are all fantastic-value wines with complexity, and they all show numerous other characteristics besides the single one I’ve isolated. But opening a bottle of each will serve as an introduction to the newbie expanding his or her palate.
•Gilbert Picq et Ses Fils Chablis 2010. Burgundy, France. $20
•Domaine de la Landelle Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2010. Loire Valley, France. $12
•Les Frères Couillaud Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Chateau de la Ragotière Sélection Vielles Vignes 2010. Loire Valley, France. $12
•Vietti Langhe Nebbiolo Perbacco 2008. Piemonte Italy. $25
•Domaine Hering Kirchberg de Barr Grand Cru Riesling 2007. Alsace, France $22
•Henri Schoenheitz Linsenberg Riesling 2008. Alsace, France. $20
•Pikes Dry Traditionale Riesling 2009. Clare Valley, Australia. $21
•Arnoux & Fils The Vac Vacqueyras 2009. Rhone Valley, France. $23
•Cantina Sociale Coopertiva Copertino Riserva 2004. Puglia, Italy. $15
•Chateau Val du Roc Bordeaux Supérieur 2009. Bordeaux, France. $14
•Juan Gil Monastrell 2010. Jumilla, Spain. $16
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin), writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post, and is the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits. Follow him @boozecolumnist.
Article originally published on Table Matters.