The Tasting Experience

A few weeks ago, while returning from a Shane Colvin concert in the San Fernando Valley, a conversation regarding all passenger’s sinus/allergy issues ensued leading to the question,  “do we really need them?”   Are sinuses, similar to appendix or tonsils, remnants of our past and can generations in the deep future avoid our irritation?

Curiosity led to a search that revealed the following functions of sinus cavities:  1.Making our voices more piercing, 2. Decreasing the weight of our head, 3. Absorbing blows to the face and 4. Moisturizing incoming air to increase the sense of smell.   As for sinuses impact on our voice, I am reminded that cats do not have sinuses.  There certainly are other, mostly psychological, methods to reduce head size and absorbing fists looses its appeal, as we get older.   Their clear value of moisturizing incoming air is important to our sense of smell, vital to appreciate both the bouquet and flavor of a fine glass of wine.

Those who wonder if a nice fruit or floral bouquet influences the taste or vice versa should understand that they are one in the same.  The wonderful aroma of a spicy tomato bisque soup is not present when we have a cold.  However, once the stuffy head passes, we often initially analyze the same tomato bisque by first smelling it.  Analyzing a glass of wine begins with our eyes, exploring it’s color and clarity, then the bouquet or “nose” using the “ol sniffer” followed by the flavor, which involves the combination of our nose and mouth, the nose actually more dominant.

Jancis Robinson, in her book, “How To Taste,” analyzes flavor e-mails to the brain to describe “what is tangible, the liquid or solid that comes into contact with our tongue and the inside of our mouth, and what is vaporized, the invisible gas that is given off by the substance.”  Go figure.  Although drinking wine may not cure our sinus problems, it certainly will exercise what is good about them.  Sinus sympathies have evolved into, “just suck it up.”

Hopefully it is now clear that the reasoning to “nose” wine before tasting is based on the fact that vapors solely on the nose differ from those combined with the tongue.  This leads to the need for wine glasses large enough to cover the entire nose.  Did you think you could capture the full essence of vapors from a southern San Luis Obispo County Syrah by simply placing a portion of the glass under your nostrils? One either thrives to totally enhance the vapor experience or ‘wimps out” by proceeding directly to the oral analysis.

Experience with “nosing” wine and learning to identify aromas naturally extend in to other things.  For example, I buy natural, loose Asian tea from “Bird Picks” a shop in Old Town Pasadena.  The wonderful flavor of their Royal Jasmine Quya Green still cannot match the extraordinary bouquet initially enjoyed in the store.   The “Bird Picks” tea shop is actually a perfect laboratory to practice identifying distinct aromas before evolving into the subtle distinctions in wine.

Although “terrior” can strongly influence regional distinctions in bouquet, reliable aromas are common to each varietal.   A California Riesling from Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley evokes memories of the smell of orchard fruits, jasmine and roses in Santa Clara Valley, aptly illustrated by John Steinbeck in the opening of Call Of The Wild and a good Pinot Noir, the cherry orchards of the Leona Valley.

Once on the palate, the tongue assists us to identify wines as sweet, dry, tannic, acidic, hopefully evolving into terms like well-balanced and full-bodied.  The fermentation process basically involves the transformation of sugar from the grapes into alcohol.  The amount of residual sugar left over determines the eventual sweetness or dryness of the wine.  With white wines, high sweetness levels found in muscato grapes or late harvest wines can drastically change with dry (non-sweet) Chardonnay or champagne.  Varietals such as Viognier, Riesling and the re-emergence of Chenin Blanc have, in recent years, grown in popularity by providing a well-balanced alternative to overly sweet or dry varietals.  Late harvest wines are unique because they add sweetness to traditionally medium dry grapes such as Zinfandel or Pinot Noir by leaving them on the vines nearly to the point they could fall to the ground naturally.  The late harvest Zinfandel, “Liquid Love” from Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles and the 2001 Bonny Doon Viognier Port are both fine examples of dessert wines often described as “off-dry” rather than sweet.

About 85% of all red wines are identified as dry.  Yet, it is not difficult to distinguish many medium dry California varietals from the extremes of the great wines from Italian regions such as Chianti Classico and Bruenello di Montalcino.  Some of the most highly rated wines from these regions tend to be too dry and earthy for many Californian palates.

Many fans of reds fear descriptive terms such as acidic or tannic, but both are contributors to well-balanced wines, either in the short or long-term.  Acidity offsets sweetness while tannins help preserve wines as the flavors merge over time.  Many of us have experienced strong tannins in coffee or tea, especially when its been in the pot or steeped too long.  Experts often project long-term greatness from wines based on young, overly tannic symptoms, requiring patience and fiscal resources from the consumers.

Most of us prefer well-balanced wines that are readily drinkable with aromas and flavors that are distinct and pair favorable with food.  The following are suggested comparison exercises that can assist in identifying individual aromas and flavors and, hence, what varietals and specific styles best fit your preferences.

#1 The Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Trio

Kathy Joseph, owner/winemaker of Fiddlehead Cellars in Lompoc, also obsessed with the search for the perfect Pinot Noir, has developed three separate Sauvignon Blanc wines, each pushed in different directions.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to sit with her while we compared “Hunneysuckle”, “Goosebury” and “Happy Canyon,” three Sauvignon Blanc varietals from various vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, each providing uniqueness in the tasting experience.  The warm region Happy Canyon grapes are permitted to ripen more fully and, with minimal oak influences, to create a more tropical, rather than citric fruit flavors.  The slightly acidic “Goosebury,” combining orchard and tropical fruit flavors with little oak influences, pairs best with food, specifically seafood.  The “Hunnysucke,” aged in French oak, provides more complex flavors and can stand alone without the influences of food.  Another comparison is that of a California Sauvignon Blanc against one from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, both readily available from local outlets.

Sauvignon Blanc ranges from light, fruity to medium- bodied oak influences, with melon, vanilla on the nose and palate and best served with seafood or mussels.


#2 The California Pinot Noir comparison


Pinot Noir grapes in California are generally found in Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.  All similar due to their proximity to coastal influences, distinctions lie, for the most part, in the soil and micro-climates that enhance minerality and certain flavors.  A comparison among appellations would be fun, especially including our local Leona Valley Winery, who’s Pinot Noir has less coastal influence than most.

Pinot Noir mostly provides elegant black cherry and berry flavors that range from lighter colored, spice enhancements to darker full-bodied a bit more jammy and riper.  Pairs well with pork, salmon and any dish using loads of mushrooms.


#3 French verses California Chardonnay


Arguments over the merits of oak-driven California Chardonnay and French White Burgundy have brewed continuously since 1976 with many of our wineries adopting the French method, preferring stainless steel over, ironically, our traditional French oak.  For serious tasters, I recommend comparing two Santa Rita Hills wineries near Lompoc.  Located next to each other along Highway 246, the Melville Winery Clone 76 “Inox” (French for stainless steel) and the Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay, both tremendous wines offer as much distinction that can be found.    The former is crisp, acidic with citric blossom on the nose and tropical flavors and the latter has a balanced acidity enhanced by nuances of orchard fruit, vanilla and brown sugar.  Another option is a comparison of a locally available Chardonnay such as the Merryvale “Starmount” with a French White Burgundy from the Loire Valley.

Chardonnay is a popular dry wine with aromas and flavors of orchard (pear, apple) and tropical/citric (orange, pineapple, grapefruit) fruits ranging in texture from light and crisp to creamy vanilla.  It pairs well with seafood like scallops, salmon, avocado and cheeses.

#4 California Syrah verses Australian Shiraz verses Rhone Syrah verses South African Shiraz.

There is no difference between the Shiraz and Syrah grape, its origin traced back to Persia.  French Syrah from the northern Rhone Valley is typically spicy and fruity with plenty of tannins, slow to age while California Syrah generates plenty of spice in the cooler climates and more raspberry, cherry in warmer regions.   Due to climate and winemaking techniques, the Shiraz from Australia and South Africa are much bolder.  “Coolthink” blog (2-15-2007) compares the two as beret to cowboy hat,  Formula One to NASCAR, Sunset Blvd to Avenue Q and “Free Wheelin Bob Dylan” to ‘Blood On The Tracks.”   A close comparison would probably require a reminder that they are the same grape.

Syrah is grown in many California regions from Santa Barbara to Mendocino Counties with aromas and flavors of white pepper, clove and berry jam ranging from medium-bodied (mostly blended) to full-bodied and tannic, generally served with lamb, sausage and, in the most decadent scenario, chocolate.


Wine, known for volatile vapors and subtle, but abundant flavor distinctions requires our full attention and the use of most of our senses.  Look at it, smell it, touch it and taste it.  Your sinuses will be the better for it.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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