We started with a riesling. We swirled it around in our glasses, so that it would start evaporating, and then stuck our noses entirely into the wine glass. My schnoz barely fit. "What do you smell?" he asked us. "Petrochemical, with hints of green apple and pear. This wine is fairly straightforward." And by Jove, he was right. It was like getting a noseful of baby oil with a hint of Jolly Rancher. We swirled the wine around again—I don't think you can swirl a wine too much—and he advised us to stuff our honkers again into the glass, but this time inhale primarily through the mouth. "See how you can discern the subtler aromas better now? The petrol smell was overpowering before, but now the green apple comes though."
Then he tossed back a hearty portion, closed his eyes, and lowered his head. He made a strange gurgling sound as he inhaled, drawing the wine from his teeth to the back of his tongue, agitating and warming the wine. Then he swished it around, gurgled again, and then swallowed. This, he told us, is the technique of most wine tasters. I didn't quite master the tasting technique, although I look forward to attempting it again in my apartment with some Charles Shaw, where I can gurgle with relative impunity—only well_lahdidah and the cat will look at me funny.
We learned that white wines don't contain any tannins, and that acidity is the sole cause of pucker in white wines. I was confused by this, because oak contains tannins—however, I just read that oak tannins break down in the presence of water and acid, whereas grape tannins, from the skins of grapes, tough it out. The acidity, and the tannins in red wines, are balanced by fruit and alcohol, and that this balance determines the body of the wine.
Next we moved to a sauvignon blanc, where the powerful aroma was unmistakably grapefruit. It was amazing. I mean, how could a wine smell so remarkably like a grapefruit? Perfesser Mike said that the subtler aroma was fresh cut grass. Maybe I mowed too many lawns when I was a kid, but I could not manage to make that particular connection.
The chardonnay was a California chardonnay, and it became quickly apparent that Perfesser Mike does not like any California Chardonnay. In fact, he detests them. Apparently they go through a second, malolactic, fermentation that gives them such a despicable character. He said that he challenges people to find him a California Chardonnay that he would actually enjoy, and when they bring him a bottle, he quickly returns it to the Wine & Spirits Shop for an exchange or refund. He described the aroma as that of burning rotted peaches in butter on the stove. Others described buttery aromas and butterscotch. I thought I detected a hint of vanilla. It reminded me of creme brulée, and I was the only person in the room that admitted to liking it.
Finally, we moved on into red territory with a sangiovese. The aroma was rich in the smell of leather and tar. Yes, leather and tar. I thought I caught a hint of tobacco, although no one else mentioned it. There were other elusive scents that I could not quite get a hold of. Although it didn't taste as awful as leather and tar might suggest, it was my least favorite of the evening. Perfesser Mike tangentially mentioned that we should never buy chianti in bottles that have baskets. "The basket, in Italian, is called a fiasco, and it's called that for a reason."
Then we had a grenache and a syrah. I think I liked these, but I'd already had 4 wines. I'm having a hard time remembering the character of these, although they were surely pleasant. I think one of them had an earthy, mushroom, aroma? I'll have to refer to my notes. After we had tried each, we mixed what was left and sampled the blend, and Perfesser Mike pointed out how the alcohol in one balanced the tannins in the other and created a blend with a fuller body and more complexity.
The merlot and cabernet sauvingnon came last. The merlot I liked. I think it was the one that had aromas of plums or prunes. Perfesser Mike told us there was an aroma of tobacco, which I could not detect until we tasted it, at which point it became quite noticeable. The cabernet sauvingnon wasn't bad, but it was extremely tannic and therefore astringent, and I thought it would have been paired well with some food. Also, everyone said they detected bell pepper, which I hunted for but could not find. Seriously, though, I'd had 7 wines. Who was I to judge at that point? We had a plastic bucket at out table for disposing of wine after we'd tasted it, but it seemed like such a waste to just throw it out. I mean, there are children in India who are going to bed sober.
The tasting session had really opened my mind the unexpected flavors and aromas you might find in a wine. Plums and oak I might expect, but mineral oil, cut grass, and tar? well_lahdidah and I both later admitted to each other to finding aromas in a couple of the wines that were reminiscent of rat turds (her term) or dog crap (my term). On the way home I found myself paying attention to aromas on the street far more than before. A flowering tree, a restaurant's kitchen. A pile of fresh asphalt reminded me of the sangiovese. I noted that the Aria the Condominium construction site smelled like chalk. The world felt full, and richer than before! But maybe that was just the wine talking.