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Smelling and Tasting Wine

Smelling and Tasting wine

I’m jealous of my dog. He can smell food from a mile away. As for us humans, well, we’re comparatively hopeless when it comes to identifying smells and tastes.

Reading various wine magazines I’m just amazed at the litany of different smells and tastes that wine critics manage to find in wines. I read some of the descriptions and think I’m either totally hopeless or that these guys are just making stuff up. I’ve discussed this with many winemakers who typically say they could never come up with such elaborate descriptions, and doubt that most of the critics’ ones are very accurate.

So I’ve started tasting a few wines and comparing them to the critic’s descriptions on flavors and taste. Then, my secret weapon is to open up the little boxes of different fruits from the supermarket and see if I get it. Smell the raspberry, smell the wine, eat the raspberry, taste the wine etc…

Often, it is clear that there are no flavors of raspberry in the wine at all, let alone graphite and other more elaborate descriptors. I call bullshit.

It seems that critics come up with new words for the wine lexicon every year, some of which make some sense and others leave me puzzled. One that always got me was “pretty”. As opposed to what? Ugly? I never fully got what people meant by pretty.

Most wine drinkers find the critic’s descriptors to be the most intimidating part of wine. We’ve scared drinkers to death. They have been made to feel inferior because they can’t describe wines in such detail, when in fact, the critics descriptions are often far too elaborate or just plain wrong.

Maybe more emphasis should be put on describing a wine’s body, dryness, acidity, tannin, texture and length. These things can be measured and described more objectively.

Anyway, if you want to get better at smelling and tasting the best way is to buy fruits, vegetables, spices, and flowers and practice smelling them at home, both blind and open. I’m sure my dog is looking at me in dismay.

South African White Wines

South Africa has a very long history of wine production, dating back to around 1650, even before the famous wines of the Medoc built their reputations. The first 300+ years were focused on producing brandy and fortified wines. This created some ugly social problems on the farms where workers were sometimes paid in alcohol and tobacco – a winning combination…

The country ranks in the top 10 wine producers worldwide now and is enjoying a renaissance. This is mainly thanks to a surge in the number of boutique wine producers who are focused on making high quality wines for the export markets, although the best don’t seem to make it to North America.

The vineyard areas are spread out over huge distances, over 700 kms north to south and 500 kms east to west. So obviously the climate can vary dramatically from the baking hot inland areas to the cooler coastal regions, such as Walker Bay and Elgin which are the focus for many quality-orientated producers.

How can you spot a Sauvignon Blanc in a blind tasting? The grape has certain traits and although these can vary depending on the climate and the region it comes from, there are some tell-tale signs of a Savvy B.

First, they’re almost always very pale in color. That’s mainly because they usually come from cooler climates, are bottled young, and typically unoaked.

On the nose they have high intensity of aromatics, sometimes very pungent, and show a herbaceous character of green pepper, fresh cut grass, citrus, and sometimes asparagus notes. It’s rare to find one that smells of ripe tropical fruits and, unless they are labeled Fume Blanc, they are almost always unoaked.

The palate is always dry, sometimes extremely austere (but in a pleasant way), and their hallmark is a bracing acidity that I equate to a Listerine mouthwash sensation. If the wine is very full in body then it’s likely not a Sauvignon.

But my advice for blind tasting is to get a peek at the label. Then slowly unravel your answer to the assembled crowd, explaining how you ruled out all the other possible varieties, and then building up to the grand finale where you name the Producer, brand, sub-region and price and then name the Winemaker’s daughter.

Antennas, bridges, Europe and fizz

It’s just amazing to read that an 18 meter antenna is being erected on the hill of Hermitage, right next to the famous La Chapelle vineyard, the birthplace of Syrah, and an icon in fine wine.

Honestly. What is with the governments in Europe allowing this to happen? A year or two ago the Germans announced they were building a bridge across the Mosel, right over some of the most famous vineyards in white wine.

Not only do these things look hideous, but they can potentially alter the terroir. Who knows how they effect the delicate micro climates and soils, and even the atmosphere.

And yet in Hermitage the guy who is building the antenna said he brought the land and was granted permission by the government to build the antenna and the period for disputing it has passed. So too bad!

So we’re in for another saga. The wine press has fresh fodder. Roads will be blocked, protesters will be out in force, and petitions will be circulated.

These types of things in Europe are partly why anyone with a few bucks goes to the New World and sets up a winery there. They want to diversify, avoid high taxes, and have the freedom to make wine the way they want too.

One of the most successful in terms of quality is Roederer in California who makes bubbly that is, in my experience, better than their French Brut non vintage. L’Ermitage 2003 is a stunning wine with a great life ahead of it. With the wine world changing so fast in the last 30 years I wonder if the classic regions in Europe will be quite so “classic” in another 30 years.


It’s been a long process with my mate Olaf the Terrible, cameraman, director, editor, music composer and recorder, sound – you name it. We came to Napa in May 2010 and spent 4 weeks filming, came back again in harvest of 2010 for more shots, but then we got sidetracked and did a series on Champagne and Bordeaux.

“Edit Napa videos” has been on the to do list for a while. But during a wild January 2012 packed with 49er playoff games Olaf and I hunkered down and we did edited it all.

In fact, we found so much footage and great comments that in addition to the 18 mini videos profiling the most famous owners and winemakers – the real stars of Napa- we decided to make a documentary on the whole valley, from the day it started in wine production up until today.

So I hope you enjoy the series on Napa. It focuses on the stories of the vintners and the unique aspects of the valley. You’ll see inside some 1st class wineries and hear from the pioneers of Napa, and the people really making it tick.

We’ll kick off the series at some stage in July.

We’re happy to announce a new job site for the UK.

Being from England, and worked in the trade there, I found it amazing that such a huge market did not have a recruitment site that was widely used. So we started one and it’s quickly becoming used by the trade.

Up until the 90’s, before the internet and sites like these, it was totally different trying to find a job. Alot of it was word of mouth or just widespread banging on doors. Now, there can be a portal linking seekers with employers.

Otherwise, it’s Rose time at this peak of summer. One of the amazing things about Sonoma is just how many tiny producers there are. I had a Rose de Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley that was all of $32 on a restaurant wine list and it was really good. The good news is that there are plenty of dry roses in California, although white Zin is still going strong…