I kill a tree every year. Despite my environmental inclinations, I buy a real Christmas tree to celebrate the holiday. I just can't get excited about a fake one with no pine smell. I suppose a fir-scented candle might impart some realness to the plastic-and-metal imposter, but my psyche would invariably suffer.
Ever since I was a kid, I've had a freakishly perceptive sense of smell. I loathed onions growing up and could smell them sautéing a block away. I'd come galloping into the kitchen, bitching about the bulbous offender, and insist that Mom cease her noxious cooking. But my once-troublesome nose serves me well as a wine writer as I thrust it into wide-mouthed glasses, breathe deeply, and wax philosophic.
Oddly fragrant smells flood from my childhood memories, like cat pee, soft leather couch, and even caramelized onions. But you don't need an overly sensitive schnoz to analyze aromas. You can start your own memory-driven smell vocabulary — be it bong water, sweaty socks, or overcooked asparagus — or innovate using the conventional catalog of wine descriptors as your springboard.
Traditionally, aromatics originate from three places: the grape variety, the place where it was grown, and the oak with which it comes into contact. Hidden in the grape skins are the fruitiness, tannins, and color needed to coax character into the sweet juice. Aromas such as black cherry and spearmint in Cabernet Sauvignon, raspberry and blueberry in Pinot Noir, and grapefruit or peaches in Sauvignon Blanc all emerge from this soft, succulent casing.
You can also sniff ripe red cherry instead of black cherry in Merlot and earthy black pepper in Syrahs, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Franc. But move the Syrah vine to Australia (where it magically gets renamed Shiraz), and a new slew of indigenous scents emerge, like eucalyptus and bright minerality. Or who can forget the funky, wet-earth smell reminiscent of dog crap in wines from South Africa? This difference stems from terroir.
Originating from French, the untranslatable word terroir (tair-WAHR) encompasses all the natural factors involved in grape growing — sun, rain, altitude, and soil characteristics. Soil variation derives from millennia of climatic changes, volcanic activity, and limestone settlements that seep flavor into the vine's roots growing through the layers of sediment. The other factors — sun, rain, and altitude — contribute ripeness and character, depending on location. This concept of terroir is why the French parceled their land into quality-designated plots, or appellations, realizing that fruit from one vineyard bears a personality different from the grapes grown 50 yards away. In the United States, we call these plots American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs.
Other aromas are introduced with a natural yet manipulated instrument. Oak, used during the fermenting process as well as for aging, is a tool winemakers spend careers perfecting. Those vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel flavors in your Chardonnay? French or Hungarian oak. American oak, used almost exclusively for red wines since it can kick the shit out of white, imparts dill, scotch, and tobacco flavors.
But it's important to note that not every nose or mouth will smell or taste the same thing. I'm particularly sensitive to certain aromas — green pepper, pine, wet slate, black cherries, black pepper, vanilla, and, yes, cat pee — because my memory relates to them, but each person carries their own smell baggage. Using standards but also noticing what you whiff in a wine, you can develop your own descriptive vocabulary — even if it's sautéed onions in butter.
Lockwood 2005 Merlot Monterey (California) — The smell alone will attract wine lovers from miles around, like a tomcat to a desirous female. Elegant, soft, and sexy with jammy raspberries, blueberries, and mellow tannins. $12