I attended the grand opening of the Vino Volo at JFK 2 weeks ago. You had to rsvp for the event with your name and birthdate, and were issued a boarding pass from American Airlines to get through security to the wine bar and store. Vino Volo eschewed the usual airport duty sales type of wines and actually had an eclectic selection, with a section featuring New York state wines, a brilliant idea. There were comfortable club chairs holding groups of wine professionals, with charcuterie, cheeses, sandwiches, smoked salmon, and all types of food for pairings. It had an air of legitimacy backed by staff fashionably attired in chic all black New York restaurant uniform. The staff, with several professional sommelier working the bar and store, dispensed wine knowledge with debonair flair typical of any wine bar in the city. The language of wine dropped into my ears like a broken pearl necklace scattering to the four corners. "Robust tannins," "tobacco," "wet stones," "gunflint," "lemony perlage," "spicy oak," "truffles and bing cherry in the mid palate," ....the list goes on and on like a string of Champagne bubbles. I always get a kick out of this "new" language I have learned for my job and affectionately call my sommelier certificate, my GED, my Geek Enology Degree, in which Wine as a second language is a requirement, as well the Art of Spitting 101. So where do these words come from exactly? Most of them come from what I will call a nose memory of what a wine smells like and helps describe what it tastes like. I annoy car owners hanging out at gas stations memorizing the smell of gasoline, a smell I love. The instant I get a whiff of petrol and peach skin, I am in Riesling country. Trying to identify a wine's characteristics by the smells wine evokes, is a fun activity not only for those working on their blind tasting skills, but for anyone trying to increase their wine acumen. This is also a super sexy date, as blind folds can be involved, food, and of course the wine. Think 9 1/2 Weeks minus the sadistic sex acts. Or just include spanking for kicks. "Bad boy, that's gooseberry and cat's pee!"
How do you describe how tannins taste, a flavor that shows up in most red wines? Tannins are found in the skins of grapes, seeds, and stems, and also in the bark of trees. Tannins act as a preservative for the wine, and have an astringent flavor. It is one of the things that make wine taste dry, as it produces a drying effect in the mouth. Thick skinned and dark grapes have more tannins than thinner more delicate grapes. Thus grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Aglianico, and Nebbiolo not only taste very dry, but have the ability to age, and will taste better as the tannins soften in the aging process. Tannin is also present in black tea and chocolate, two foods that showcase tannins well.Steep a bag of black tea in a cup, a light film will develop, the tea will darken and have a bitter flavor. Those are the tannins. If you eat green and red grapes, notice how the flavor of the skin on the red grape stays in the mouth. Bitter chocolate has the same effect. I like to think that's why it's called bittersweet. The bitter, yet not unpleasant flavor of tannin can be offset by the addition of lactic acid. It's why tannins in tea laced with milk lose their bitterness. You can also disguise harsh tannins in a young wine, by serving it with cheese which has the same effect as adding milk to tea. A hunk of Neal's yard cheddar can take down the tannins of a young, heavily oaked wine, or disguise the fact that the wine is Goats du Roam and not Cotes du Rhone.
What's with the whole cat's pee thing? Cat's pee equals Sauvignon Blanc. Let's use something more appetizing. Grapefruit equals Sauvignon Blanc. Cut open a grapefruit, and peel a little of the skin off. The oils released smell like Sauvignon Blanc, as does the fruit. Citrus is a common flavor in white wine, but go even further and try to distinguish what type of citrus you taste. Lemons, limes, tangerines, grapefruit, and oranges all show themselves in white wine. Another thing the flavor profile of fruits show is the range and nuance that can make a wine have a distinct flavor and also the climate the wine was grown in. The tartness and refreshing zing of green apple shows itself in cooler growing regions of Chardonnay like Chablis. Warmer region Chardonnay will taste more of red apples, for instance the Macconnais. Red cherries seem to taste more tart than black cherry. Pinot Noir from cooler climates like Burgundy, with more austere winemaking, (read sans oak blast), will taste of a more tart cherry than perhaps a Pinot Noir from California. When California winemakers say their Pinots or Chardonnays are "Burgundian", they are not only talking about the leaner style but also saying that despite the warm climate they are delivering a similar high level of quality.
Tasting flavors in wine is not the only thing to recognize in wine. What about the body? The more full bodied the wine, the longer the finish will be. It's like the turtle that wins the race against the rabbit.Take the weight of milk. Skim milk has the lightest body and it's flavor is very fresh, while whole milk coats the mouth and has a creamy texture. I often put BB in my notes to denote a full bodied wine, BB standing for big booty. A full bodied wine has the same power as that super tight pair of true religion jeans, and can accomplish the same feat; the acquisition of date number two. Last but not least, I have my personal addition, slang if you will, in describing wines that have it all, balance, pure fruit flavors, fluid tannins, expression of terroir, judicious use of oak, and that is the word killer. There is the lower case killer for young fresh wines that show potential greatness. Capital Killer, for more medium bodied wines perhaps young , aging well. All caps KILLER, for wines that make me love my job and never going to law school, and GHOST FACE KILLA! for wines that have that umami, a liberal arts wine that studied it all before choosing Brunello as its major. So get a group of friends together or that special somebody and gather together, fruits, tobacco, dirt, butter, fatty bacon, petroleum jelly (no gasoline please folks), coffee, spices, flowers, and the wines. Wet some stones and smell the minerality mimicked in wine. Lightly crush some rose petals to release its scent. Leave the barnyard funk in the park, and just imagine. Let the acrid smell of fireworks remind you of gun flint, instead of using a firearm if date number two goes terribly wrong. Last but not least savor the wine and marvel at its complexity. Pretty soon pencil shavings and bright raspberry fruit will come naturally to you.
Marquita Levy works as a sales representative for Montecastelli Selections in New York City. She received her sommelier certificate from the American Sommelier Association in 2004, and continues to study for the first round of exams for the Master Sommelier. She grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. She does prefer thin crust pizza, but cannot live without celery salt.