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Smell the Glass

August 22, 2010

Apologies in advance to Mrs. Fussy, who has dutifully agreed to wake up early on a Sunday morning to read yet another post about wood that nobody really cares about.  Especially not her.

But let me try to convince you for a moment that this post is worthwhile.

One of the most difficult things to do in wine tasting, or even spirit tasting for that matter, is to distinguish the smells in the glass, and identify what they are and where they came from.  Ultimately, the vast majority of wine smells like wine.  Picking out nuances like cigar box, toast, or even vanilla takes a lot of work.

I was talking about this with my father-in-law on Thursday night as we tasted two different single malts side by side.  It was a battle of the classics, Macallan versus Highland Park.  The influence of wood on 12-year-old whiskey is significant.

Now what would you say if I told you there was an easy way to identify which smells come from wood?

I learned this trick from Dyson DeMara many years ago at a very special tasting at Robert Mondavi. Here is what you do.  Pour yourself a modest glass of wine and enjoy it.  Swirl and sniff, examine its color.  Contemplate its body and the nature of its finish.  Continue until you have drunk the glass dry.

Now smell the empty glass.

The smells that remain are the smells the oak contributed to the wine.  And it works for spirits as well.  Dyson explained this had something to do with the oils extracted from the oak, and the porous nature of glass.

I cannot confirm or deny that.  But I do know that it works.

You can then pour a fresh glass of wine in another glass, and find those smells from the oak lurking in the full glass of wine.

What is amazing about this exercise is that it helps to untangle the symphony of smells and flavors.  While you may not be able to hum the bass line for most songs, the bass line of Pink Floyd’s Money is unmistakable, largely because of the bass solo at the beginning of the song.  There are probably more modern musical examples, but I’m old, so give me a break.

And just like starting with only the bass line helps you pick it out it the whole way through the song, separately identifying the smell of the oak in wine or spirits will help you to identify it easily in the glass.  That is, of course, if you keep your glasses free of soapy residue.  Otherwise you are not smelling the influence of oak, but the influence of detergent.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2010 10:34 am

    You learn something new every day, but usually not by breakfast. With your permission, I will wait till after noon to try this. Or not.

  2. August 22, 2010 12:18 pm

    I’ll chime in to say that I’ve enjoyed your recent discussions on wood. Please, please keep writing about wine even if it isn’t one of your most popular topics. Clearly wine is something you’re passionate about; it’d be a shame if you stopped writing about it.

    Regarding your current post, what steps should one take during a tasting of multiple wines to avoid transferring wood taint leftover from one wine to the following samples? Do you rinse your glass with water between each sample? Should I request a new glass between samples (I’m sure the pourer will be thrilled with that idea)? Is it not a big deal?

  3. August 22, 2010 12:56 pm

    I actually hadn’t ever tried this. Thankfully, I am currently sitting in a distillery surrounded by oak barrels and bottled spirits, so it isn’t to hard to try!

    Thanks for the insight D, and keep it up. I love the spirits/wine/cocktail posts.

  4. Raf permalink
    August 23, 2010 2:00 am

    Spinal Tap

  5. Ellen Whitby permalink
    August 24, 2010 12:34 am

    It’s hard to come up with a sentence that actually includes “12-year-old single-malt whiskey” and “Pink Floyd” but you did. I bet you could get an award for that.


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