Is hedgerow the same as sweaty passionfruit? (The social constructedness of wine at ICCWS, part II)

The International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton was an excellent chance to sample English wines, and to discover that what New Zealander’s call “sweaty-passionfruit” seems to be what English people – or at least Oz Clarke – calls the distinctively English aroma of an English countryside hedgerow.

Let it be duly noted that I’m not suggesting that Oz Clarke’s mode of description, or his palate, need be considered broadly representative of the English. Moreover, I expect that many of his countryfolk spend more time carrying laptop bags down exhaust fume-sodden city streets than carrying a rifle and a brace of dead waterfowl down “distinctively English” hedgerows. Even still. Hedgerow is a much better fit for an English wine than sweaty passionfruit, and the reverse is true for those New Zealand sauvignon blancs.

We have no absolute language for talking about wine aroma. Advocates for standardized tasting terms sometimes complain about wine writers “just calling a smell whatever” (I’m paraphrasing). Sure, everyone who writes about wine could agree to use the same words – and maybe even to take the kinds of standardized training necessary for us to all use those words in roughly similar ways – but we’d still just be calling a smell whatever. We use analogies. Wine aromas are like passionfruit, or sweat, or hedgerow, which is to say that we use memory to describe wine, which is to say that available and useful descriptions will vary amongst individuals and cultures.

Nothing new here. Plenty of folk will be familiar with efforts over the past few years to devise useful tasting terms for China and put them into use. Describing aromas of jujube or wolfberry seems more productive than trying to teach Chinese drinkers about “blackcurrant” as a wine aroma completely divorced from its associations with blackcurrants drowning in double cream or preserves spread on toast in the morning. At the ICCWS, Marianne McKay of the University of Stellenbosch described related efforts to define South Africa-relevant aroma terms. Most of her undergraduates begin knowing very little about wine, many not even being wine drinkers. Students who have to learn how to assess wine aroma at the same time as learning what to associate with “raspberry” have a harder time learning those assessment skills than students working with descriptors they already recognize. She and her colleagues are working with students to create a South African aroma wheel, which makes incredible sense. (So long as those students will work in South Africa, and one imagines that they can learn European terms later if they move to the Northern Hemisphere.)

The thing about all of these studies is that they assume that wine aromas remain identical while we just exchange one word for another. One Australian-German study actually tested the equivalency of European and Chinese wine descriptors: “dried wolfberry” was a fair replacement for “strawberry preserve,” but “fresh wolfberry” and “raspberry” didn’t match. The ideal is a one-to-one translation of the tasting note, with the sole effect increased understanding (and increased sales, those Australians are surely hoping) amongst their audience.

I disagree. Words aren’t transparent conduits for information. The words we use shape our realities. They direct where our attention travels. They activate memories and associations. We know that memory and smell are connected at the level of brain activity, and so we know that words change the way things smell.

I wonder whether “sweaty-passionfruit” as it’s used to describe sauvignon blanc and “English hedgerow” as it’s used to describe English whites both map to the same chemical compound (3-mercaptohexylacetate, or one of its cousins*), and I hope that Dr. Wendy Parr, who’s been at the center of characterizing what’s unique about the aromas of New Zealand’s signature wines, takes up that question. But even if sensory science says that these descriptors are two different words for “the same thing,” I won’t be willing to say that a mass spectrometer knows more, or better, than Oz Clarke. Not because I have any special love of Oz Clarke or mistrust in the scientific instrumentation, but because the English wine industry is in the process of shaping what’s unique about it’s terroir, and it is, and those hedgerows are part of it. Even if every English person doesn’t spend misty mornings walking down hedgerows, I’m sure that that mass spectrometer never has. 

There’s fat in your wine, but the fatty acids are the issue

Oil and water don’t mix (unless you add egg, but then you’ve got an emulsion…and mayonnaise). Wine is essentially water plus alcohol, which doesn’t mix well with oil, either. Since there’s no oil slick layer floating on top of your glass of wine the way fat drops glisten on top of a bowl of ramen, you’ve probably assumed that the wine is fat-free. And if you Google “is there fat in wine?” about 102,000,000 results will tell you that you’re right.

Which is wrong, sort of. Wine does, strictly speaking, include very small amounts of fat. New and improved chemical analyses of New Zealand sauvignon blancs have identified that they at least 25 different kinds of triacylglycerides — the chemical reference for your standard fat molecule: three fatty acids (tri-acyl) bound to a glycerol molecule (glyceride). That’s in addition to an assortment of other fat relatives such as free fatty acids and some waxes.

It’s actually the free fatty acids that are most important here. (Those fats are there in such minuscule quantities that even the jumpiest health journalist can’t pretend there’s anything to jump about there.) They’re present in milligram per liter quantities (so we’re talking less than the amount of sugar found even in truly dry wines) which is enough to make a significant sensory impact on wine indirectly. 

Yeast need lots of free fatty acids to grow well; they’re a major raw ingredient for new cell walls. With plenty of oxygen they can make their own; without oxygen, that particular yeast production line shuts down. Fermenting wine is a mostly anaerobic job for yeast: they get a little oxygen exposure at the top of the vat, a little if the wine is vigorously mixed to keep the skins submerged, but mostly need to rely on the fatty acids initially contained in the grape juice to tide them over. If that source fails, a long and very complicated chain of yeast stress response events kick in, ultimately ending in stuck fermentations, icky aromas, or both. In short, the amount and kind of fatty acids in particular and lipids in general affects wine aroma.

That’s not a wholly unheard-of problem. Overly enthusiastic efforts to clarify white juice before fermentation can pull fatty acids out, too, to the yeast’s detriment. But, ironically, the more common issue is too much of the wrong kind of fatty acid after the yeast have been at it awhile. Lacking the ability to synthesize cell wall components they really need, too much of cell wall molecules they can make (decanoic and octanoic acids) accumulate with toxic consequences. The effect fatty acids have on yeast is a bit like the effect fat has on humans: too much of the wrong kind kills us after awhile, but not enough of the right kind can cause serious problems, too.

But there’s a different and possibly more interesting point to be made here. Lipids originally present in the grape juice affect yeast metabolism, which affects wine aroma, which gives us new places to intervene to make alterations. Adding lipids to South Australian chardonnay boosted production of aromatic molecules: esters, aldehydes, higher alcohols, and volatile acids. The authors of that sauv blanc study speculate that adding specific lipids might be a way to create new, different styles of that so very identifiably aromatic wine.

This information is splendid in two ways. First, it tells us more about that complex and ill-described business of how winemaking works. Second, it may be a way to experiment with new wines. But, third, it could open up one more avenue for adding stuff to make wine fit a particular sensory profile, which we might more generally call “manipulation” and to which many of us* are generally opposed but which fuels the contemporary commercial wine-as-supermarket-commodity industry and supplies inexpensive reds and whites to fit market niche-targeted profiles specifically designed for the glasses of middle-class suburban mothers between 31 and 40 or single 22-29 condo dwellers who prefer to drink wine before dinner with friends on Thursday and watch Orange is the New Black. All wine is manipulated, all wine contains fat, but what that means for any individual case is a different question.



*Assuming, perhaps unfairly, that “us” is mostly comprised of people who prefer to drink and/or help produce unique and expressive wines that rely more for direction on local traditions, personal philosophy, and vintage conditions than Nielsen numbers.


The joyful paradox of non-icon wines and New Zealand chardonnay

Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore ubiquitous and boring. Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore endlessly diverse and interesting. If you like chardonnay, you’re never going to run out of wines to try, and with just a little effort they’re all (okay; mostly all) going to taste different.

Having an iconic variety is good for marketing: consumers can latch onto a recognizable and rememberable identity that, once tried and liked, they can come back to over and over. Willamette Valley pinot noir. Napa cab. Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Without such a regional brand, wines have a harder time finding a place in consumers’ memories and, consequently, wine lists and store shelves. Washington state…riesling? Merlot? Syrah? 

But having an iconic wine brings on a paradoxically both-and problem and joy that looks a lot like the paradoxical both-and problem of chardonnay. Stand-out wines tend to overshadow other, very interesting but minor wines that remain less well-known. But because they’re less well-known, interested persons can enjoy all the loveliness of finding a hidden treasure that, frankly, would be less of a treasure were it not so hidden. Oregon chardonnay and it’s clamor-inducing annual symposium, despite chard being less than 10% of the state’s production, is an excellent case in point. So is New Zealand chardonnay.

None of the three New Zealand winegrowing regions I recently visited on my dissertation-data-collecting tour is especially well-known for chardonnay, but they’re are among the wines that interested me most everywhere. That’s not to discount the balance of some Hawke’s Bay syrahs (and even one or two pinots there), or the fun of non-standard Marlborough sauvignon blancs (and a few pinots there too), or the diverse pinot gris of Central Otago (and, yes, even some pinot noir in that iconic pinot region). But it is very much to say that Kiwi chardonnay can and should be “hidden treasures” worth digging under the icons to find.

The unsurprising problem remains that these wines are hard to find outside of New Zealand. The only good thing I can say about that is that were New Zealand churning out as much chardonnay as standard mass-market sauvignon blanc, it might develop into a similarly iconic style that would quench so much of the non-standard joy that seems to come through these wines.

Elephant Hill Chardonnay 2013 (Hawke’s Bay) – Elephant Hill is ripping gewürztraminer out of it’s coastal vineyard to make room for more chardonnay, which is a real shame — the last vintage of the gewürztraminer is beautifully rich with magnolia apricot jam and an unctuous finish — but makes sense when you try the chard. Writing about big zesty lemon flavors backed up by oak and vanilla with some pleasant green notes sandwiched in between sounds fairly ordinary, but this wine isn’t: it’s briny, extraordinarily fresh and zesty, but still full rather than sharp in the mouth.

Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Marlborough) – It’s hard to say too many good things about Fromm’s chardonnays. Savory, with lots of lime and some herbaceousness over a fairly big wine carried by enough oak that I’d appreciate seeing this again in a few more years. Great, long, lime zest-driven finish. The LaStrada remains complex and bordering on savory in a lighter style.

Felton Road chardonnay 2014 (Bannockburn, Central Otago; barrel tasting) – Some of the chardonnays I encountered in Central Otago felt disjointed, like someone was trying to tow the line mid-way between creamy weight and steely acidity and instead ended up making something with elements of each that didn’t quite fit together in the end. Felton Road’s tries and succeeds, with interesting and well-integrated acidity keeping from flabbiness a wine with definite mouth-filling creaminess and palate weight.