We’ve all been there. You order a bottle of wine at a restaurant, the server pours a bit for you. You swirl the glass, stick your nose in, and take a sniff. Partly, it seems, because your dinner companions expect you to do it. It’s a ritual. But do you have to smell your wine before you taste it?
Aroma is an important component of taste. When you think of your favorite foods, you probably think first of how they smell. If not for the smell, your food would only taste sweet, bitter, sour, or salty – think of when you have a cold and can’t really “taste” your food. What’s missing is the flavor component from the chemicals in your food that evaporate quickly and stimulate the olfactory cells of the brain.
So, does a wine taste the way it smells? Yes and no. The more volatile a chemical is, the lower the temperature at which it evaporates. So the concentration of the more volatile chemicals that evaporate from your wine glass at room temperature (the ones in that first sniff) will be reduced by the time you take a sip of the wine. And since your mouth is warmer than room temperature, a new set of chemicals will evaporate from your sip of wine, creating different flavors in your mouth. Another thing we’ve all experienced is our nose “giving out” on us when we’re exposed to a strong odor – after a few seconds you just don’t smell it anymore. That could also lessen the sensation of taste associated with that odor.
What does wine smell like? We’ve all heard people expound on individual smells in their wine with great specificity (an Italian plum grown on a south-facing slope, watered by hand and picked six days before perfect ripeness). Many of us can’t bring those aromas to mind, much less describe them. It’s easier to think of aromas that will likely be there and then match them when you smell the wine. There are a few major aroma categories that show up, and you can use these as a guide:
- Fruits – milder aromas like apple, pear, strawberry; darker/riper fruits like plums, cherries, blackberries; tropical fruits such as mango, melon, passion fruit; citrus fruits such as lemon, orange, grapefruit.
- Grasses and herbs – thyme and lavender are more common in Rhône wines, grassy aromas can sometimes appear in white wines.
- Flowers – while it’s rare that a wine will smell like a rose, there can be a definite flowery aroma. Very often, flowers also smell like grapes as well.
- Earth, leather, tobacco — think of dirt turned over while gardening, a pleasant musky aroma. Leather and tobacco can also be components found in red wines.
- Wood, vanilla – wine aged in oak can smell like wood. And since artificial vanilla flavoring is made from wood pulp, oaked wines often have a vanilla scent.
Rather than giving you an exact blueprint, we think smelling the wine preps our brains for potential flavors and gets us ready for the taste of the wine itself. It’s also a pleasure to smell the wine, using the sense of smell as a component of the experience. Of course, unpleasant or unexpected odors can alert us to wine that is spoiled or that we just won’t like. Either way, that’s good. So go ahead and sniff the wine when the restaurant server gives it to you. Just don’t be too loud!
And now, this week’s recipe, adapted from one by Joanne Weir. She had excellent cooking shows on PBS in the 1990s and early 2000s and was one of the first TV cooks to emphasize fresh, local ingredients. There was sometimes too much I-live-in-the-Napa-Valley-and-you-don’t going on, but as is the case with really good food, the recipes continue to be ones we use again and again. The oven-roasted tomatoes are a great way to use those acres of fresh tomatoes you see at farmers’ markets; in fact, we roasted some this week (heirloom reds and yellow pears). Put the leftover roasted tomatoes in plastic bags and freeze them – you can pull them out when the weather’s cold to remind yourself what summer is like! Serve the tartines as an appetizer, with salad lightly dressed with oil and vinegar, or as an accompaniment to grilled tuna for a meal.
Since we talked about aroma in wine, we have two very different choices to pair this week. Domaine Chaume-Arnaud’s Granges Rouges is 100% Grenache, with an earthy aroma and flavor. Domaine de Montvac’s Vacqueras White is a rich white aged in oak that has a definite floral aroma, along with the wood and vanilla scents. Try them both, and treat your nose with the dignity it deserves!
Tartines with Goat Cheese and Roasted Tomato Tapenade
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed and dried, then finely mashed
Half a cup pitted black olives (like Kalamata)
1 clove minced garlic, plus another clove peeled and cut in half
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped
Grated zest of half a lemon
One-quarter teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
One and a half cups finely chopped oven roasted tomatoes (see note)
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
8 large slices rustic bread
6-8 ounces soft fresh goat cheese at room temperature
Put the anchovies, olives, minced garlic, capers, lemon zest, and thyme in a food processor and pulse a few times to form a rough paste. Add the lemon juice and the tomatoes, pulse two times. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Toast the bread and rub one side of each piece with the cut clove of garlic. Cut the slices in half. Divide the goat cheese between the pieces and spread evenly, then top with the tomato mixture.
Note: Oven-roasted tomatoes are easy to make, although they take time. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. While the oven is heating, core as many tomatoes as you want or can fit in your oven, cut the tomatoes in half, and put them on baking sheets. Sprinkle with some kosher salt and let them sit for a few minutes. Then put them in the oven and roast. They should be definitely drier but still soft and a little plump – about three and a half hours for plum tomatoes and four to five hours for larger tomatoes.