“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting all kinds of cherry notes on this wine.” Ah, the parlance of the wine world, a world of pencil shavings, Ahi Tuna, blueberries and tropical notes. An industry where cat pee is an actual tasting note, and can be seen as a good thing to smell. So what’s all this about? The thousands upon thousands of descriptors used to describe wine are the result of nature and winemaking interacting with your brain. It’s what happens when wine is in your face.
The most anxiety inducing element of assessing wine is when you stick your nose down in the glass and try to get a sense of what the wine is telling you. We pour, sniff, swirl, sniff, and then, the fun part, sip. As we repeat these steps the wine seems to change. So the big question is, what is happening in that glass?
The moment wine is exposed to oxygen it begins to break down. Ever hold an apple and watch it brown? The same thing is happening to the wine. Alcohol is evaporating and oxygen is attacking all the other elements in the glass, slowly but surely turning the wine into vinegar. I know that’s not very romantic but then again it kind of is. Nature’s primal cycle in full effect y’all.
As a wine aerates, opens, oxidizes, whatever you want to call it, we have a window of opportunity to enjoy its destruction and that journey gives us the aromas mentioned above. There are no pencil shavings in a vineyard or winery. Nor are there tropical fruits affecting the resulting wine or tuna laying around. These descriptors are our brains trying to connect with the wine.
When wine is on your palate it continues to aerate. As wine aerates little compounds called flavonoids come into play. They rise up through your retronasal passage behind your nose and come into contact with your olfactory bulb just behind your brow. This bulb sends electrical impulses to your brain’s orbital frontal lobe (we really are electric!) which triggers your sense memory, causing you to say, “Blueberry!” or “Cat Pee!” What’s happening is your brain is accessing all of the aromas you have experienced in life and trying to associate them with what the wine is giving off.
Don’t let this part of wine enjoyment scare you. It’s actually one of the most fun parts of wine save for actually drinking it. Think of it like this, if you have never smelled cat pee you will never smell it in wine. And if the person next to you is saying cat pee and you don’t get that on the nose of the wine, THAT’S OK! If you smell grapes in wine, OWN IT! Wine is made from grapes so it’s gonna have some grapiness to it. Say “grapey” out loud and with confidence and your brain will move on to the next sense memory.
So next time you pop a bottle of wine you know what’s happening when wine is all up in your face.