Take It Apart… Put It Back Together

A Green Satsuma – green and yellow on the outside, orange on the inside. Probably too obscure for a tasting note.

We all taste in different ways. For some people, dismantling a wine’s flavour is, at best, a bit of a chore. At worst it’s a sure way to rationalise away its mystique, just as learning to play a piece of music can dull the pleasure of listening to it. For me, though, the excitement of wine is a bit like the excitement of great art; you can get up close, take it apart, reduce it…and then you can step back and revel in the sum of the whole experience. There are big-picture, big-impact wines which don’t quite carry off the detail, and there are fantastic feats of shifting complexity that somehow fail to add up to a satisfying drinking experience. The fun is in walking back and forth to see if you have one of those wines that can do both.

We’ve all had moments where we’ve missed something blindingly obvious (quite literally) under our nose. It’s quite a humbling moment to find yourself caught up in the hunt for some elusive aroma (is that a hint of fennel seed…or fenugreek?) whilst failing to note an overwhelming flavour of blackberry. With this in mind I’ve recently been creating my own version of Tom Stevenson’s Mind Jogging List, just for Traditional Method Sparkling Wines. It is a very personal one; the way the flavours are laid out simply represents the way my thought process tends to run when tasting. It’s not supposed to be a grand educational tool, let alone a system. I only include flavours I feel like I really know; as I log more, I’ll add them in.

If I can, I’ll try and point to where an aroma might come from or what it might signify about the wine. This is a complex and imprecise area, and I have lots still to learn (as evidenced by the question marks dotted around). If you have a view as to a particular flavour, do let me know!

Perhaps this is why I love Champagne and Traditional Method wines; even at a fairly basic level they can be quite detailed. They are, after all, mostly blends, often with tens or hundreds of constituent parts. That inherent complexity then gets thrown through the triple kaleidoscope of bottle fermentation, lees ageing and post-disgorgement development, with each stage adding new lines and splashes to the canvas. The skill of the winemaker is in keeping an eye on the big picture as well as the detail.

Citrus Fruit

As the Sun rises and sets, there will be citrus flavours in your glass of fizz. Well, almost certainly. Somewhere. We tend to associate them more with Chardonnay, but they certainly pop up in the red grapes too – ripe Blanc De Noirs wines from Pinot Noir can have lovely candied lemon flavours. Meunier seems perhaps a bit less focussed when it come to citrus, but it’s hard to say for sure.

When I think about fruits I tend to think of a character as well as the fruit itself. A lemon has many constituent parts, each with quite different flavours. Unripe lemon juice is a very different flavour to Sicilian lemon zest, which is very different again from preserved, candied lemon or lemon marmalade. Sometimes the character will be stronger than the actual perception of a single fruit, i.e. general ‘candied citrus’ flavours. The interaction of different aspects of a wine will influence these characters; a zero-dosage wine might seem more ‘pithy’ whilst a Brut style with some bottle age post-disgorgement might get ‘marmaladey’.

The essential oil is only one part of the aroma of an actual lemon.

I did some reading about citrus flavours and oxidative/reductive winemaking for this piece. Grapefruit is an interesting one, as it is actually alone in being the specific flavour of a volatile thiol called (for short) 3-MH. These compounds tend to arise from reductive winemaking, and that seems to fit my experience – see on this blog my notes for Taittinger 2012 and Dom Perignon 2009 here, both fairly reductive styles. However, I often taste yellow grapefruit in Cava that is not especially reductive; here it seems to be more of a varietal aroma, as it probably can be with Chardonnay in general.

The orange citrus fruits seem only to make rare appearances in tasting notes, which has always slightly confused me as I do come across them on as supporting actors on the nose quite frequently (especially in red wines). Rosés especially can carry a clementine-like sweetness. Big whacks of Tropicana-like fresh orange/mandarin are pretty much unheard of; rather like lime, the orange citrus seem to fit best as minor notes in sparkling wine.

When I come across a Sparkling Wine with absolutely no citrus flavour of any kind I’ll be sure to make a note!

*Why might a Blanc De Noirs Champagne from Pinot Noir have lemon notes, but a red Pinot Noir won’t? For starters, grape maturity is a lot lower, and flavour compounds from the skin are not extracted. For an interesting discussion on white+red wine flavours, read the section on the ‘Non-Volatile Wine Matrix’ in Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. It illuminates some research that shows that volatile compounds from red wines can appear more as white wine aromas when mixed with the non-volatile matrix (the ‘unsmellable’ bits) of a white wine. Blanc de Noirs are quite interesting on the flavour front, no? 

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