I Taste White!

I’m fairly sure that I’ve been considering writing this post for a long time ….. I just didn’t know it! All it took was a little shove in the right direction and from the right angle. In fact it was TWO angles, not one. The first was from a new book which encapsulated a great deal of what I believed about wine, especially tasting and the “science” behind it. The second was from an internet “conversation” with a good blogging friend. Adding these two things together gave me a lightbulb moment, but before I switch that lightbulb on let me begin with my fumbling around in the dark.

Over the years I have written many posts about people who write tasting notes in the style of what I have called “fruit salad bingo”, you know the sort of thing where a wine is described as a set of aromas such as violets, roses, mushroom, leather, cigar box, honeysuckle etc ….. and as a set of flavours such as peach, cherry, blackberry, melon, orange, grapefruit, honey, etc. I have attended tutored tastings and even been a wine judge in a U.K. awards event and been as frustrated as heck listening to what I “should” have been smelling and tasting …… according to others around me, but getting none of it. Instead I have said something like “it’s a Chardonnay, probably from xxx because yyy, or it’s a Sauvignon Blanc and almost certainly from zzz”. I’ve done the same with reds …… “it’s a Pinot Noir, it’s a Gamay, it’s a Malbec yada yada”. Can you see what I’m doing here? Grape and place, grape and place, grape and place. It got to the point where I started to think there was something wrong with me, or my equipment!

What set me off thinking about this again was a conversation I had with Danell at Vinthropology.com where she mentioned a rose petals aroma in a particular wine she had tasted. I replied along the lines of “Yes, I smell C10H18O too but usually in the garden🤣🤣” as I quoted the chemical formula for rose oil! What then followed was an exchange about how I sense Diacetyl in Chardonnay that has been subjected to malolactic fermentation, or Rotundone in Syrah/Shiraz, or Fraxetin in oaked Tempranillo, or Pyrazines in Sauvignon Blanc especially those from Marlborough in New Zealand. More “normal” people who sense these chemicals without knowing what they were would say buttery/creamy, pepper, sourness, and grassy/green pepper for each respectively.

The conversation with Danell continued as we discussed WHY I either detect or describe these sensations as Diacetyl instead of buttery/creamy, or Fraxetin instead of sourness and the answer was fairly obvious, though not something I had thought much about previously. Be patient …… I’ll come back to it in a minute!

After this exchange with Danell I had a “long discussion with myself” which included going back over a couple of articles plus a book from Jamie Goode I had recently read. Jamie has a PhD in Plant Biology and is a professional wine journalist. His website is at Wine Anorak and his book I referred to is I Taste Red in which one of the chapters discusses some specific aromas and flavours to be found in Sauvignon Blanc wines, and particularly those from Marlborough in New Zealand. These specific flavours are due to the presence of Pyrazines which I have already mentioned above and some research has shown that there are actually 4 different Pyrazines that can be present in wines of this variety but that it is ONE particular Pyrazine that significantly gives Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc its distinctive flavour, Methoxy IsoButyl Pyrazine, MIBP. Stay with me, I’ll try to simplify. However, it’s not only a larger amount of MIBP in the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that creates the distinction, because it needs the presence of another three Pyrazine compounds too ……. 3MH, 3MHA and 4MMP ….. do NOT be concerned about what these mean …… remember the main issue, that all FOUR are needed AND in the right proportions to create the “Marlborough effect”.

Methoxy IsoButyl Pyrazine

Danell’s response was naturally a display of surprise; “Do you actually?! 😯 I mean, is that the connection your brain makes when you smell it? How fascinating! I guess you would if you’ve had years of experience in a laboratory”.

My response was a bit more explanatory;
Yes, I really do! I’m unsure why that is, although I think it’s a combination of my level of chemistry education which was in Analytical Chemistry for a PhD, plus a little I know of neuroscience from my psychology degree. My top 2 are Rotundone and Diacetyl, the latter coming from malolactic fermentation. I also taste Fraxetin especially in long oak aged Tempranillo. I often have to look up the actual formula but I roughly remember the structures of each because that’s a visual thing. Champa and I both recognise the smell of many chemicals from our university days, not wine connected, such as Pyridine, Amines, Phenols, Ketones yada yada. Sad isn’t it 😂😂

What this really means is that in our 20s Dr C and I were “conditioned” in the recognition of many aromas, chemicals, substances we recognised and called by their structural names according to convention. We were analytical chemists, highly trained to identify things and what was in them. We used state of the art techniques including Mass Spectrometry, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Gas Liquid Chromatography, Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy, the simpler techniques of Infra Red and Ultra Violet spectrophotometry, polarography, plus what we call “wet analysis”. This went on for 5 years covering Masters degrees, Doctorates and Post Doctoral Fellowships. That is intense, it never leaves us, and needs to be compared and contrasted with what a trained sommelier or wine taster goes through to become qualified. In fact they are really incomparable, such that someone like myself who has 50 years worth of wine tasting/drinking without the professional wine tasters education cannot express the experience of an aroma in the same way that they can. We fall back on what has been crammed into our brains for 5 years. But of course a full 50 years also gave me a volume of knowledge from experiencing over 100 grape varieties from many different countries, regions and terroirs. My tasting is instantly holistic and judgemental to some extent, grape-place, grape-place etc.

In a post on his website Jamie Goode makes a really interesting point about some common smells we all experience and in the same way. We walk down the local high street past the bakers shop and smell ………. bread! We don’t smell flour, yeast or all of the scientifically identifiable aromas like furan derivatives (2-methylfuran, 2-pentylfuran, 2-acetylfuran), furfural derivatives (furfural and 5-methylfurfural), 2-furanmethanol, 2,3-pentanedione and methylpyrazine. Similarly as we walk past the coffee shop we smell …… coffee holistically, though I won’t bore you with all of the chemical components.

If you’re really interested in the flour analysis go here “Bread Chemical and Nutritional Characteristics”. And do read Jamie’s two articles on holistic aromas and tasting, here is Part 1 “Wine Just Tastes of Wine”

I Taste White

So now this brings me back to the title of this post, I Taste White. I think I have already mentioned quite a few chemicals I detect as my immediate sensory input. Many of them are associated with white wine and often associated with the acidity of the wine. So for example, of the three main white grapes I like ….. Very High acidity a Chenin Blanc; High acidity a Sauvignon Blanc; Moderate acidity a Chardonnay. In the latter I am detecting Malic Acid or Lactic Acid, apples or creamy/buttery for example and this varies as to whether the wine has undergone Malolactic fermentation in the winery. Of course there are also variations from country, regions, process and ageing that modifies things, but much of the acidity structure remains the same even if it’s intensity and fruit balance changes over time in the bottle. I don’t like raw, new tannin, hence my dislike of most red wines except Burgundian Pinot Noir which is low in tannin.

Grape and Place

And so relating this back to my early university science education I am attempting to explain and possibly justify my “weirdness” in tasting notes. I just don’t get the aromas and flavours that trained tasters do, but I do have something that many don’t ….. a memory bank of stored particular experiences that hit me as soon as I smell or taste something ….. a furmint in Budapest, a Chardonnay in Puligny Montrachet, another Chardonnay in Chablis, a Pinot Noir in Pommard, a Gewurtztraminer in Ribeauville, a Nebbiolo in Rome, a Cabernet Sauvignon in San Francisco, a Syrah in Chateauneuf du Pape. Or, should that be a lactic acid in Puligny Montrachet, a malic acid in Chablis, Pyrazine in Menetou Salon, Rotundone in Chateauneuf du Pape? I’ll shut up!

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16 replies

  1. It was a rhetorical question, and I think I was quite clear that I believe sharing our experiences through language can be enlightening and give us a wider perspective, ultimately enriching our overall experience. My point is that we are somehow drawn to putting our experiences into words and communicating them with others. How you do it, why and what words you choose depends on the person. I take your point about needing some information about a wine before you decide to drink or buy it, but I was referring to the sensory experience of appreciating art which also extends to film, music, dance and theatre. Language is used to promote an exhibition/performance or to describe a piece in order to give viewers a context, as well. The language then used by reviewers, critics and connoisseurs is very different. Personally, I see it as somewhat analogous to wine tasting. In any case, I’m very much looking forward to your post on language! 🥂

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    • Yes, I did realise you were being rhetorical, but I was struggling to answer you without quoting too much from my next post 🤦‍♂️. What I have been reading, and starting to accept, is that there is a huge difference between the focus and writing of an “art” critic compared to a wine critic. The wine critic is often trapped between writing for other professionals and writing for novice winos. They have different needs and there is a huge gulf between the language used in each case. For example, a novice wino would get nowhere with a Robert Parker review! It seems that art critics have no such problem or desire to “dumb down” their critique. But, my reading is limited, though there does seem some truth to it as I rarely understand personally reviews I read of music, paintings, sculpture etc. Language post on Monday.

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  2. Your long awaited “I Taste White” post is here! I feel like we’ve debated this many times, so I won’t rehash old arguments, but maybe this time we’re getting closer to the core of the issue… something happens between the aroma and the brain which recognises it. The aroma is chemical, raw sensory data, and is interpreted by the brain either through bottom-up or top-down perception processing or a combination of the two. The process of identifying the plethora of sensations one is experiencing, creating connections and associations to one’s past experience and knowledge, and putting it into words is, necessarily, highly subjective, even if the input is the same. I think we can agree up to this point. But why put it into words at all? What are we trying to do when we describe a wine, and why should anyone care? Is it about showing off your wine knowledge, or fitting in to an “elite” group, or having the right answer, or simply sharing your experience with others? Does the quality of my experience depend on my ability to put it into words? Is there a word for every possible sensation? I think when we talk about art the dynamic is much the same, and yet with art people tend to be much more open to interpretation and accepting of the benefits of hearing someone else’s point of view. Obviously the “trained eye” will have more refined insights, and it’s the same with wine. Affectation or insincerity is boring, on the other hand, sharing our experiences can be enlightening and give us a wider perspective, ultimately enriching our overall experience. So again, why put it into words at all?


    • “Why put it into words at all”? Really? Words are essential in so many different ways as a meaningful dialogue between people with an interest in collecting, making, buting


      • Oops, I pressed enter instead of delete to edit a spelling mistake 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️ I’ll start again

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      • “Why put it into words at all”? Really? Words are essential in so many different ways as a meaningful dialogue between people with an interest in collecting, making, buying, selling etc etc. Initially there is surely a dialogue inside our own heads, especially if you are a collector, so that you record your thoughts about something you have just tasted. Then there is another dialogue between winemaker and customer when visiting a vineyard and are genuinely seeking to buy. The winemaker will tell you about the basics of the wine and maybe terroir, then ….. in my experience anyway, they will discuss acidity, tannin, fruit, balance, complexity, finish …… before maybe talking about the maturity period and the wines peak. Professional wine tasters also seek to communicate via their tasting notes, they are paid to describe and evaluate a wine that hopefully attracts customers. Labels on the reverse of bottles describe the wine again so as to inform customers to “attract” them to buy, the same is true on websites of vineyards who are selling online. The issue is one of understanding, of choosing the right language as descriptors to get the message across. This isn’t the same as a piece of art, I look at a painting, I see the composition, I decide if I like it or not. It’s a visual thing. But a wine? Unless I can taste it, all I see is a liquid inside a bottle, how do I decide whether to buy or not? I am at the mercy of someone else’s description, and it needs to inform and advise me in a language that I understand and is useful to me. It IS the core of why we need this shared understanding. Language is the final part of my Wine and Culture series. 👍🍷

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  3. Years ago, in the days when I had a monthly piece in a hotel magazine in the UK, I attended a champagne tasting at a very posh venue in London organised by the famous house that was conducting the tasting and some rather grand columnists from wine magazines. The idea was to see how champagne changed in taste depending on what one was eating with it, something I’d never considered. I was utterly fascinated by the result but equally fascinated by the pseudology displayed by some of the wine writers there one of whom copied my comments word for word in his next month’s column (we were asked what one particular champagne reminded us of.) I couldn’t think of anything on the spur of the moment so came up with “my grandmother’s kitchen on jam-making day” – seemed as good as any phrases they were spouting. I’ve never been able to take wine-writers seriously since then – not that I’m putting you in that category Dr B, please don’t think that. Your explanation as to how you understand wine is as fascinating as my discovery that champage drunk with smoked salmon tastes very different from champage drunk with cheese.


    • That’s a very insightful comment and tale Mari. As I’ve said in an earlier comment I am very aware of how I sense a Wine holistically, but firstly it’s a chemical I recognise in 4-5 different varietals. Secondly, but within seconds, memories are conjured of having tasted something similar, a Chardonnay could remind me of Chablis, a Meursault, a Montagny, a Macon, or something Australian. My daughter is the same. My next wine article on “language” takes us into the “grandmas kitchen” approach of using metaphors, but they have to be metaphors we can all relate to, or they’re useless.


  4. Fascinating, as always. I was going to comment that your background in Chemistry must make the difference until Sheree mentioned that her husband does not approach wine the same way. Soooo….analytical chemistry and simultaneous wine club discussions it is! I am fairly sure I would rather hear ‘buttery’ used to describe a good Chardonnay rather than its chemical composition.

    BTW, I also enjoyed reading your commentary on how the UK handled the virus. Everything became so politicized in the US, mostly fueled by the media and of course a Prez who couldn’t be civil. Even so, God forbid someone gives credit to the opposition for doing something good. Twenty-four hours without saying anything negative? Now, that’s an Instagram challenge that would never go viral!

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    • We were very young when it all started😂. However, my sensing a particular chemical is very fast and transitory, and very quickly I move on to a more cognitive aspect, especially memories associated with a wine. This often means memories of holidays, vineyard visits, brasseries, restaurants etc. I write very little in the style of “ fruit salad bingo”! My next wine post will be my final one in the wine and culture series with a focus on “language” especially the use of metaphors. Buttery is one such example, but it has limited appeal or usefulness because it’s often part of a long list of “elements”.

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    • The effect created by Kate Bingham has been quite stunning, yet hardly reported in our media. However she has been listed in the Queens honours list for later this month so will become Dame Kate, very well deserved too.

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  5. Fascinating my husband has a degree in Chemistry but doesn’t go through the same thought process as you.

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    • It’s bizarre isn’t it. I know it was the postgraduate research for Masters and Doctorate that did it, the intensity of specialising in analytical chemistry, whilst at the same time a group of us forming our own wine club. Imagine the conversations between 8 of us …… our day to day language was full of “chemistry”!

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  6. This was a very passionate post! XD I’ve never had wine but I’ve seen a few wine tasting shows on TV and I’ve always been a bit confused as to how so many people talk for so long, just about the taste and smell of a drink. XD

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