Monthly Archives: July 2014

Chestnut flowers

Walking through Greenwich park on Saturday afternoon, I happen upon a familiar scent. No, it is not sweaty teenagers playing football in the heat or the smell of fresh dog on the pavement. It is a smell that, in the past, I found hard to describe, but now recognize instantaneously: slightly sulphurous, touch swimming-pooly (in a good way), dusty cement and lime-like (as my hubby describes it) – quite like Bordeaux-mixture, you could say. This fathom smell, which is much more pleasant than it sounds, is the smell of chestnut blossoms. And just like that, I feel myself being transported to Ribeira Sacra in Spain. You see, there are a gazillion chestnut trees growing in Ribeira Sacra, and when I visited this stunning Galician wine region a few weeks ago, they were very much in bloom. Now, said few weeks ago, upon arriving in Spain and as yet unawares of what it was I was smelling I remarked on how disagreeable it was how much sulphur was being sprayed in the vineyards by the growers. Even staying by a river in a canyon (Canon do Sil) we could not get away from this sulphur-like smell! I am forever grateful to Rafael Palacios, who when driving us through his vineyards in Valdeorras, pointed out that his top wine, As Sortes Godello, sometimes has the scent of chestnut flowers. This received quizzical looks from both myself and the hubby, as we’d never smelled chestnut flowers before. Not for a lack of chestnut trees in our local park! The car was promptly stopped and Rafael climbed out to pluck a couple of said flowers from a nearby tree. What a revelation! And just like that, I added another aroma to my list of tasting descriptors.


Whilst some people might find talking about scents in wine a chore, I find it quite interesting. Whilst where the MW exam is concerned I generally avoid off the wall descriptors, I do occasionally enjoy letting the nose roam free. I’m always smelling things, looking to identify more scents for the smell library. Whether I’m on holiday or at home, no flower remains unsmelled. The way I taste wine, I spend much more time going by the nose than the palate. I do this in the exam as much as when I drink for pleasure. There are certain smells that immediately make me want to drink a wine: lavender, violet and wild blueberry are particular favourites in reds. Often found in cool vintage Northern Rhones, some red Burgundies (certain 2009 Vosne-Romanees), a few Italians and in top Priorat, these are ultimately my favourite wines to drink as a result. I am less fond of smoke, unless it’s woodsmoke or the type that comes from roasting chestnuts (that reminds me of cozy winters). Cutting my finger and tasting the blood sometimes makes me think of Nerello Mascalese from Etna. Whites are even more delightful…..mostly as I often find them more aromatically complex than reds, with red Burgundy perhaps the one exception. Whites with a heady perfume of meadow flowers are just heavenly. I can’t eat a white peach and not think about drinking Albarino in the park on a hot summer’s day. Putting Vaseline on my lips sometimes makes me think of Semillon.

I’m stating the obvious here but one of the joys of wine is that it does not just smell and taste of grapes. Show me another beverage, alcoholic or not, that can remind you of a time, a place, a flower, a tree, a fruit or a vegetable, an animal or even a person. And if you often have wine on your brain, like me, sometimes this also works in reverse….places, people, animals, trees and food remind you of certain wines. It doesn’t help get the wine out of the brain, granted, but it’s a jolly nice feeling. Sometimes, being reminded of a wine through scents reminds you of time, a place and a person you drank that wine with.  The smell of chestnut flowers will now always make me think of Galicia, Godello and driving through a violent thunderstorm between wineries in Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra. So let’s keep on smelling and let scent and wine help us create memories.

Lenka (Evil Monkey)

Time to Fall in Love Again…

For 3 years now I have been tearing wine apart; probing it, questioning it, analysing it, resenting it and loving it in equal parts.   It was a slippery slope as my emotional response to wine was replaced by systematic analysis. What is the alcohol level, the acidity, the residual sugar? Can one detect the presence of malolactic fermentation/lees aging/oak aging? Is the oak new or old? Is it French, American or Slovenian? Is it 225 litre barrels or large botti? How long has the wine been in oak? Pedantic? Yes. Necessary? Sadly, also yes. Love was in danger of being sacrificed at the cold table of scientific analysis with the High Priest of the IMW looking down in judgement.

Despite the MW practical exams finishing at the beginning of June, I have still been tasting wine in a frenzied state of analysis – a vinous version of PTSD I fear. I have been so busy analysing the wine that I have been forgetting to ‘feel’ the wine, to let the flavours and textures wash over me, to allow my senses to run wild with the pure, holistic, sensory joy of good wine. Like someone with a nervous tick it was proving difficult to throw off.

However, last weekend, for the first time in a long while I was tasting with my heart and not with my head.  The result was completely self indulgent and utterly marvelous! It was Emma – aka ‘Science Monkey’s’ – much anticipated wedding which meant for once, though I was in a wine region I was not manically taking notes and firing out questions to bemused winemakers but sitting back and indulging in non-vinous conversation (well, for the most part). I was enjoying being surrounded by great friends, bathed in sunshine and enjoying some of the world’s most dramatic wine-scapes of the Douro valley.

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I was drinking good wine in the setting it was designed to be enjoyed… a chilled magnum of crisp Albarino by the pool in the blazing sun with Lenka, (evil monkey); a delicious supple Mencia in the evening playing a rather competitive game of rummy; a romantic bottle of Alvarhino over a lengthy tapas lunch in sun drenched Porto. And that is not even touching on the Pol Roger flowing like water into my glass on the big day (it always pays to make friends with the waiter early on!), and the grand vinous finale on the wedding day was Dow’s 1977 port, laid down at the groom’s christening many years before, and received with great pleasure by the eager guests.


Though scientific understanding of what is in the glass is exciting and invigorating, and analysing the wine rewarding and challenging it is equally important to remember to sit back, smile, forget about the science and just be enveloped by the sheer pleasure of the aromatic beauty that is in your glass.

Thank you Emma and Miguel, not only for a truly beautiful wedding, but for reminding me why I love wine so much.


–          Alex