Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Vayniac Poem

In mysterious alchemy, we find solace.
Crimson tentacles extending inward,
Rivulets begin untold, malice laden,
Cloying, begotten, beguiling, forgotten,
Not entirely rotten transgressions.

Yet profundity requires forbearance
Righteousness and perseverance,
And if consciousness fails us, though expected,
just allow this to soothe lubriciously
For blood cannot abide

And she tastes unequivocally, unveiling, unrelenting
Of peaches soaked prodigiously in my Clone 5.

- 100% Vayniac-written, one word at a time.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Le Gout d'Eau: a horizontal tasting.

Notes: All of the following were tasted chilled, in the Riedel glass. TDS means "total dissolved solids" in mg/L. Chemical facts from

2008 Evian (√Čvian-les-Bains, France)($2/1.5L)
NOSE: Very clean and refreshing. Like a whiff of clean air on a cold rainy day. PALATE: Soft and round, with no bitterness or dryness. Almost a slight sweetness. The softness contributes to a nice impression of weight and viscosity when chilled. Clean, refreshing finish with a hint of sweetness. 90-RA
pH = 7.18
TDS = unknown

2007 Icelandic Glacial (Thorlakshofn, Iceland)($2/L)

NOSE: clean, fresh. Like a whiff of clean air on a cold snowy day. PALATE: thinner than the Evian, but again, free of bitterness and dryness. clean, refreshing finish. Bluer. 92-RA
pH = 7.75
TDS = 68 mg/L

2008 Chateau Tap de Scully (4th Floor) ($0)

NOSE: Smells like... a bathroom (go figure), a little paper towel action, and a little dirty beach smells. PALATE: I feel like I just scraped two-day-old salmon off of a rusty iron fence and ate it with some dusty stones from Lyngso (Bay Area folks, you know what I mean!). The bitter dryness starts attacking my palate at once, and lingers unpleasantly on the finish, which is very dusty-rock-like. 67-RA.
pH = I don't know.
TDS = I don't want to know.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Wines that make me SAD

2003 Murphy-Goode Chardonnay (Sonoma) ($14)

Avoid this. It is sugar water.

2005 Charles Shaw "Two-buck-Chuck" Merlot ($2)

Also sugar water. I have heard that some of these wines are decent and good values, but this wine in particular is unacceptable. There are so many better options, even for the price. Evian springs to mind.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tasting notes: new considerations

When I began tasting, I wrote the following:

To say that one actually tastes blackberries in the wine is not only inaccurate, it denies the fact that wine possesses flavours and scents not found anywhere else. If, in our lack of words to describe these unique scents and tastes, we are forced to figuratively call upon other, familiar substances, we should acknowledge our shortcoming and not reduce wine to merely a jigsaw puzzle of known flavors and scents.

Several months and ~30 wines later, my mind is changed: I believe that nearly all the flavours in wine can be described in terms of components we recognize in the world around us. These need not be indivisible elements: we might say the wine smells of blackberries and blackcurrants, when clearly the two are multi-species aromas, with some overlap. I believe there is a molecular basis for these impressions, and that objective truths about the molecular makeup of the wine can be discovered through our senses of taste and smell, subjective though they might be.

What then, do we look for when we taste? Certainly each individual is free to attend to whatever characteristics of the wine interest him. Many drinkers do not smell the wine at all, which is their prerogative, though most of the information contained in the glass is in the "nose." In fact, my tasting method has a lot to do with my view of wine as "information."

I Never Look at the Wine Before Tasting

In fact I often remove my glasses before nosing, partly so they don't hit the glass, and partly so I don't see the wine. I do not wish to be prejudiced by the appearance, and I believe any beauty or lack thereof in the wine's hue or clarity is irrelevant to my enjoyment of the wine. I do sometimes check the color after tasting, to check for irregularities.

Four Nosings

Informed by Peynaud's assertion that different aromas have different volatilities, I endeavor to capture a range of aromas through different nosings. First I sniff slightly at the still glass, then deeply. Then I repeat with a swirled glass. I always intend to record the aromas at each point, but inevitably I end up repeating the third and fourth several times, mashing my impressions of each nosing into one aromatic picture. I try to remain open to whatever scents strike my memory, but I do look specifically for varietal characteristic, when I know the varietal.

Wrestling with a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster

"the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick." - D. Adams,HHG2G

Upon actually tasting the wine, my method devolves into madness. I often miss initial impressions entirely, in eagerness to extract retronasal aromatics through emulsifying with air in the mouth GV-style, and standard "oo" aeration. Of late I have also begun to swish laterally to detect bitterness on the sides of the tongue. I usually forget the finish in my excitement about whatever I discovered on the midpalate.

As for the parameters I'm concentrating on, they are wine and varied. I examine sweetness, mouthfeel, viscosity, density, bitterness, saltiness, acidity, alcohol heat, and tannins. It's hardly surprising that the best I can do is remember whether or not there were retronasal aromatics - I'm far to distracted to try to fit flavour profiles to the midpalate - I do most of that on the nose. It's all got to be done quickly - smelling and tasting - because of the rapidity with which our palates become enured to flavours.

The Goal

Ultimately I'm looking for a detailed picture of the wine: how the components relate to eachother and to the the context of other wines. Ultimately I should be able to form such a complete and objective picture of the wine that I would recognize the wine upon retasting. Objectivity is what I'm going for when tasting. When drinking on the other hand, subjectivity is clearly the name of the game.

Stone Brewing Co: IPA

Stone Brewing Co. India Pale Ale (IPA) ($3.5/20 oz):

NOSE: Very aromatic, with a light malted aroma, fresh hops, and a richness that almost suggests light fruits like raspberries. Distinctive. I most recently tasted this at the Stone Brewing Company headquarters near San Diego with Paul and friends. The first sniff immediately recalled that dinner to mind. This is the first "instant recall" moment I have had with aromas. Perhaps this means my tasting technique is improving, as this type of recall is said to be the most reliable with expert tasters (Broadbent, Wine Tasting).

PALATE: Small visible head, but produces a huge pillow-like foam when "chewed". Good malt flavor, strong midpalate aromatics. Like eating sweet whole-grain bread. Finish: hoppy like I've never had before (except for the Arrogant Bastard and Ruination IPA).

Conclusion: Not as fruity as the Arrogant Bastard (lychee aromas), or as interesting as the Smoked Porter (cigarrette stubs in a portable toilet), but still a good beer.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Why don't critics mention sweetness?

After the revelatory bottle that began everything, '04 Barrel Monkeys, I have been disappointed many times by sickly sweet Australian Shiraz's reviewed by the Wine Advocate. Robert Parker and Jay Miller do not seem to ever mention sweetness level, unless they do it in some sort of code (which Gary Vaynerchuk assures me is not the case). I can think of only a few explanations:

1. They do not perceive the wines as sweet; my sugar-sensitivity is abnormally acute.
According to Peynaud (Le Gout de Vin) most people percieve sweetness only after 2g/L. My threshold seems to be around 1 g/L, not too much below. Furthermore, several members of the tasting group shared my feelings that certain wines were syrupy sweet.

2. They notice the sweetness but think it unworthy of mention, or else stylistically expected.
Given the wide variation I have observed in sweetness of wines in this same category, I am surprised that they don't record this feature. Gary Vaynerchuk did say that sweet shiraz's have been in fashion in recent vintages.

3. They observe the sweetness but do not note it, except indirectly as vague, composite characteristics such as "richness" because people associate dry wines with class and distinction and do not wish to drink wines regarded as "sweet" (supported by Barr in Wine Snobbery).
I have absolutely no objection to people drinking and enjoying sweet wines. Know thyself, and known thy palate. However I am pissed that their seeming collective "shame" has made it difficult for drinkers like myself to learn which wines are dry and which are sweet. I no longer buy Australian shiraz's because for my palate, they are a crapshoot, which I cannot afford.

That said, if you do enjoy sweet, massive, rich, full-bodied, fruit bombs that are low in acidity and tannins, hit me up - I've got several good recommendations. One word: Mollydooker!

Why dry, red wines?

Why I like dry, red wines:
A reflection on the history of my palate.

In Wine Snobbery, Andrew Barr analyzes the reasons for appreciating red wine. He suggests that appreciation for dryness, tannins, and bitterness is associated with sophistication because these tastes are arrived at only after some time. Dryness is mainly a result of indundation with sugary foods in youth. While not all people lose their sweet tooth with time, the converse is rare: people no not lose desire for sweetness without the passage of some time. Tannins and bitterness, Barr proposes, invoke a sense of danger similar to that of a rollercoaster ride. Tannins are chemical deterrents to consuming a fruit before the appropriate time. Bitterness is the perception by which we identify many natural poisons.

For tannins, Barr's analysis resonates for me, especially his argument about danger: I feel a rush of excitement when a massively tannic wine rips through my palate. On dryness, I believe my desire for dry wines, or more appropriately, my impatience with sweet wines, is trifaceted: it is acquired, innate, and aesthetic.

Acquiring a taste for dryness:

Growing up in suburban California, I was subject to much of the normal sugar barrage that accompanies growing up in America, where the hamburger has fully half the sugar of a sugared doughnut (1). In addition, I partook often of mother's native Filipino cuisine, which incorporates levels of sugar in main dishes that are high even by American standards. My father's Indian heritage brought milk-based mithas (sweets) of such richness and sweetness that to my palate, no American candy compares. These might have sped up my sugar satiation.

Seemingly contrary, but to identical effect, my parents refused me certain high-sugar American staples for which, later, I never acquired a taste. Sugary cereal and sodas were not allowed, in favor of plain Cheerios and milk. My parents allowed grape juice, which I found sickening, as it lacks the balancing acidity of sodas. As a result my tolerance for sweets is even lower than my parents'.

Nature, not just nurture:

As a biologist, I know well the futility of citing one without the other. As Peynaud notes in the classic Le Gout de Vin, taste thresholds vary, and are largely genetic. I have not yet put a good fit to my thresholds of perception for sugar and sweetness, since few wineries publish residual sugar data. However I have observed sweetness at 1.1 g/L (below Peynaud's "average" threshold of 2 g/L), although I don't seem to be bothered by the taste until around 1.5-2 g/L. This number is skewed when wines contain abnormal levels of alcohol and glycerine, both of which enhance sweetness. From 1-2g, it seems my palate can be fooled with sufficient balancing acidity, but above 2g, I still percieve the wine as sugary, regardless of acidity. Drinking more than a few mouthfuls of such sweet wines is, for me, cloyingly unpleasant. While my threshold seems to be on the lower end of the the general public (especially the American public), it is by no means extreme. I am sure many share my sensitivity, if not my dislike for sweetness.

Aesthetics without snobbery:

My aesthetic appreciation of dry wines probably has its root in the way my parents referred to dry wines in my youth. My dad prefers dry reds, and my mom prefers sweet whites. For some reason I admired my dad's seemingly intellectual interest in wines and so considered his taste more sophisticated. When I actually began to drink wine, I through out these preconceived notions in a fit of anti-snobbery, but ended up in the same place. Eventually my appreciation for dryness became an "acquired aesthetic" value, the same way I have grown to love Bach more and more. I admire artistic cleanness and the paradox of restrained expressiveness. The idea of delivering complex and clear fruit tastes and aromas without the sweetness that naturally accompanies them is attractive to me. As is the idea of powerful tannins without bitterness.

And here my palate diverges from my analysis, for according to Barr, I should appreciate the subconscious danger associated with bitterness, as I do with tannins. Indeed, I like espressos straight up, and chocolate in excess of 80%, but in wines, it doesn't please me so much. But I'm still open. I had a Tannat a few weeks ago that was completely dry with strong tannins and some bitterness - and I truly enjoyed the experience. Every new varietal and region is a chance to rediscover your palate. Gary Vaynerchuk knows his. I'm learning more about mine with every tasting. Do you know your palate?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

2001 Ch. Filhot (Sauternes)

2001 Chateau Filhot (Sauternes)($15 half bottle)

On the nose: burnt rubber/petrol, dried apricots, peaches, slight 'spiciness' (cinnamon?), apples, hint of floral. Very clear, bold nose, even when chilled.

Palate: Super sweet, viscous, with good balancing acidity. Just enough acidity and low enough bitterness that it wasn't cloying for me, but it was right there on the fence. After a few sips, it was too much. Excellent midpalate aromatics - the midpalate is where this really shines, with honeylike mouthfeel, a sugary bite, explosive, delicious fruit, and only very little bitterness. Good finish: clean, not bitter, dried apricots, long. The first really sweet wine that didn't make me shudder with every sip - contrast with the Malivoire Gewurz (too little acidity, too much bitterness) and the Tablas Creek vin de paille (too low acidity, too sweet). I'm still not a fan of dessert wines, but this is clearly the best I've had so far by a significant margin. 88-RA