One unsuspecting afternoon, I was out to lunch with my friend Claudia in Franschhoek. I had just ordered us each a glass of wine off the chalk-scrawled blackboard menu, when suddenly she blurted out, while nervously fiddling with her serviette, “uh, Caroline, if you wouldn’t mind, please don’t sniff the wine, it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable!” She looked away shyly and quickly changed the topic. It was almost as if I had been indulging in some kind of strange fetish in public, and she felt obligated to tell me that I should really rather be keeping it to myself.
I felt a little intriqued and perplexed. It really cannot be as mortifying as people that take pleasure in sniffing other people’s feet, can it? And it’s definitely not as embarrassing as dogs sniffing each others’ bums, but maybe the sentiment is quite similar. If you’ll allow me some leverage with this somewhat distasteful analogy… dogs sniff other dogs’ bums to find out who the other dog is and where it has been; similarly wine tasters sniff wine to find out what it is and where it may come from. Smelling the wine (and the bum) is very telling.
But nosing the wine really isn’t just a snooty thing to do – wine tasters everywhere will concur that it’s a very important part of the sensory explosion, I mean exploration. Taste is 90% smell, and so sniffing before sipping will help to bring out the flavours in the wine. So do I really smell coffee beans and a fistful of sugared raspberries when I swirl the wine, or have I lost my senses to this fetish? But how else could one explain why Rhine Riesling has an exciting aroma of Zippo fluid? Mind you, people also think my love of sniffing Zippo lighters is an ungainly inclination. Mmm, a sniffing fetish, it’s kind of cool.
Anyway, fetish or not, wine tasting is a fun experience and an excellent way to be a little daring. I mean it’s not like wine tasting is as daring or misunderstood as say extreme ironing, where crazy scuba divers plunge to the oceans depths with their ironing boards. No, I’d say it’s a little more structured and sensible than that, and requires a lot less equipment and effort! All you need is a corkscrew, a glass, your nose, your taste buds and of course a bottle of wine. It’s that easy. Oh, and maybe a friend, it’s not graceful to drink alone!
Of course, there are some people that take wine tasting and buying to the extreme, converting basements of their five storey Camps Bay mansions into cellars for their auction wine acquisitions, which they squirrel away for show off purposes only, because the wines won’t actually be ready for drinking in this lifetime. But I assure you that the average vineyard variety wine taster is really quite mild in comparison.
And not only is storing of wine for any real length of time, for example a weekend, beyond my will power and patience, but I have also never been able to put on a straight face and rattle off an impressively pretentious wine analysis; there is just something too candid and flippant about my approach to wine I guess. Am I not supposed to be this honest about my lack of wine ambitions?
I am happy if I like what is in my glass and I might muster something that goes like this: “mmm, this is a rowdy and reckless little Pinotage, yes yes, it has a bit down-to-earth farmyard kick, I like it!” After which I am glared at sharply by the nearest wine guru and have to endure something about a burnt rubber characteristic and how Pinotage is such a difficult grape to grow… blah blah, why must we always try to tame everything? I say let Pinotage be the wild and unruly new kid on the block, it’s only been around since 1925. If you want tame, then try a Merlot!
And I would much rather spend a day of wine tasting in the company of my friend, Ashley, who really doesn’t care much about the ins and outs of the winemaking process, but can so comically describe a particular Pinotage as “a meal in a glass”, which the serious wine connoisseur may have described as a “textbook Pinotage: plums, blackberries, banana, wild herbs, and firm tannins for aging”; but where’s the giggle in that? So there’s really got to be more and less to it than the textbook stuff. Simply put, it’s about finding out what you enjoy, trying something new, and having a little moderate adventure in your glass, while bringing your sniffing fetish out in public.
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