For those hankering for a deeper understanding of wine — for those who want to peer behind the curtain of hedonism and start to learn what it’s all about — I cannot recommend highly enough the University of Bordeaux’s professional training in sensory analysis. This intensive five-day French-language tasting course teaches how to recognize and understand the aromas and flavors in wine that make it taste how it does. While aimed at professionals, the course is appropriate for anyone passionately invested in wine.
Hedonism is how most of us experience wine. It takes a conscious effort to set aside the thoughts of “I like this” or “I don’t like this” and focus on the components that you can detect. For instance, are there aromas of fruit? Which kind? How acidic is the wine, and what qualities of acidity? Is there a balance and a tension between the perceived sweetness and the acidity, the bitterness, the astringency? You don’t need to pay attention to these things to enjoy wine, but if you do it can elevate your pleasure significantly. And understanding what specifically gives rise to these qualities is an intellectual pursuit that you can add onto the pure, hedonistic pleasure of drinking.
Over the course of a week we tasted around 150 “solutions”, most of which were not wine. These were mostly purified water with molecules added, starting with the basics (vanilla, acetic acid, different sugars) and moving to the more esoteric. Particularly interesting to me was whiskey lactone, also know as oak lactone, which smells of coconut and is present in (obviously) oak. Many of these molecules, which together form the complex aroma and taste of wine, are actually rather disgusting on their own. The molecule abbreviated as “4MMP”, which is a distinctive component of the Sauvignon Blanc grape aroma (which I like), smells to me like terrible body odor, or to many others like cat pee. Everyone has different sensitivities to different smells, so for others 4MMP is very mild and pleasant. It all depends how your brain is wired and how your smell receptors happen to be laid out in your head.
After smelling and tasting these molecules several times it becomes easier to detect them in a wine, in turn making it easier to judge quality and typicity and to be able to describe it in a way that people understand. In my daily life I started noticing smells I would have otherwise missed, such as the faint (and for me, revolting) smell of the boxwood shrub that the French call le buis (unsurprisingly to me, 4MMP is a strong component). Our discussion also veered into physiology, with the basics of how the olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) systems work, and how molecules relate to human perception.
We also smelled and tasted a number of molecules associated with wine “flaws.” These are compounds that arise from problems of fermentation, hygiene, or “elevage” (aging before bottling) that can mask other desirable characteristic of a finished wine. For instance, excessive ethyl acetate can occur in young wines in the presence of oxygen, leaving wines smelling strongly of nail polish remover. This is clearly a fault, since it detracts from the other, more unique and desirable traits of the wine. Other faults are less obvious, and some connoisseurs even disagree about what constitutes a fault. For example, for various reasons many winemakers avoid the use of sulfur dioxide (a common additive used to slow oxidation and prevent micro-organic contamination), which can allow the yeast Brettanomyces to proliferate, resulting in certain “animal” aromas in the wine. In low concentrations many people consider this pleasant, but in high concentrations it is unequivocally a fault.
It is the university’s oenology (wine science) school, the Institute des Sciences da la Vine et du Vin (ISVV), that puts on this course, and the instructors are all practicing researchers in oenology. Unlike many academics, however, they can communicate their subject adeptly to non-experts. In particular Axel Marchal, the lead instructor, is both an applied scientist and talented teacher. Consequently I found the course to be very illuminating and definitely time well spent.
When it comes to tasting actual wines, ISVV sets the bar high. Their philosophy is that if they are going to train wine scientists who will go on to work in commercial wineries, they need to present a baseline of quality that is as high as possible. Consequently the benchmark wines in each category (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Alsace, and further abroad) are very high. I won’t name names but we tasted some excellent, top-quality wines, many with 20-35 years of age. One special wine was significantly older than that. The sample wines were mostly French but I think they were well-chosen to illustrate all the points being made.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention my classmates. They came from diverse backgrounds — winemakers, marketers, buyers, and one amateur —with the common characteristic that they were all passionate about wine. I made friends and connections and cannot wait for my next course at ISVV.
*De la composition du vin à la compréhension de l’analyse sensorielle