Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Flowering of Wine

When contemplating the question, what does good pinot noir smell and taste like, it is extraordinary how when you look through a couple of dozen reference sources, so few actually have anything substantive to say on the issue at all. Most immediately slide into the history and geography of Burgundy, the classification of the vineyards etc etc. Sometimes they mention in passing that burgundy/pinot noir is different from bordeaux/cabernet/merlot, but they do not try to put into words why. Few come to the point of characterising the wine. Geoff Kelly, Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews.

The many and varied perfumes of flowers are used frequently in descriptions of the aroma and bouquet of wines. The words used range from the somewhat generic descriptor floral to specific types of flowers like Violet or GĂ©ranium. Tom Stevenson lists 15 different flower aromas in his mind-jogging list of aromas and flavors, and that list is by no means complete because it seems that each wine critic has his/her own terminology. One very famous critic uses the term “white flowers” for Australian Shiraz, White Burgundy, and even French Riesling. Doesn’t seem very specific does it? Having spent part of last weekend helping Miranda trim and weed our, sorry her, garden I can state that white flowers, as an aroma, is almost as generic as floral. I smelt white flowers on arugula that needed to be trimmed so it would not go to seed, on several of our citrus trees and even some of the flowering weeds that I was told to remove from a neighbor's yard; with permission, of course. Not a Shiraz among them!

Why the seemingly sudden interest in floral descriptors? Well it is all the fault of the latest article on Geoff Kelly’s Wine Reviews web site. Geoff is, to my mind, the most analytical of all wine critics/writers. He goes after the minutiae of wine especially the smell; for me this is an excellent quality in a wine drinker. And to him “the key factor in fine pinot noir is the quality of bouquet, and in particular the precise floral qualities”. The problem is that Geoff has his own descriptors for Pinot Noir like buddleia in the lighter styles to boronia in wine from riper grapes. I’m no gardener, just the gardener’s helper, so I asked Miranda what was the smell of buddleia and boronia. She said she had heard of them but did not know the smell. I was nosing a 2005 Russian Hill Meredith Vineyard Pinot Noir * at the time and it really would have been helpful to know if the aromas were anywhere near what Geoff seeks in perfect Pinot because this wine was overflowing with what I call the typical aromas of this variety. But I’m like Michael Broadbent when it comes to describing the aroma of Pinot, I find it impossible and I usually resort to something like “spicy Pinot Noir”, and then go looking for forest floor or mushrooms because I’m pretty sure I know those smells. OK, reasonably sure! At least I think………

Now I don’t know whether Geoff is correct in his floral descriptions of Pinot but I have a sneaking suspicion that he’s not likely to be too far wrong. He’s also not wrong in another comment that he made regarding Pinot – “what does good pinot noir smell and taste like, it is extraordinary how when you look through a couple of dozen reference sources, so few actually have anything substantive to say on the issue at all.” I don’t disagree at all. In fact you could replace Pinot Noir by Merlot or Syrah or Tempranillo or Malbec, or just about any grape variety and the conclusion holds true. Most grape varieties don’t have distinctive aromas especially if you look at them across broad geographical regions. For example, the aromas of Syrah/Shiraz from the Rhone and the Barossa can be astonishing different, and even within those two regions, the wines can show an amazing spectrum of aromatic characters.

Is it really necessary, in the appreciation of wine, to correctly identify the smell of a particular variety such as Pinot Noir? Well if charming or ethereal or even feminine fit with how you see Pinot Noir, then I guess not. Me? I’m going to take Geoff Kelly’s advice and spend more time in gardens. Not only will that please Miranda but I might just learn quite a bit about the smell of wine.

* Disclaimer: My wife Miranda has a long standing friendship with the wife of the winemaker for Russian Hill Estate winery, and we consider both personal friends. For me to review their wines may be perceived as a conflict of interest by some which is why I try not to mention the wines on my blogs. I make an exception in this case because the wine mentioned above was the wine that stimulated, in part, this post.

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