John Poplin on July 18, 2016 0 Comments Although no two people taste all the exact same characteristics of a wine, there are certain elements that each wine and/or its varietal are well known for. The plush fruit of a Napa Valley Cabernet, the racy acidity of a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and the list goes on as wines are generalized for some of their characteristics. But in today’s world, with the expansion of wine and wine consumers, wine descriptors are being thrown out that make some people just sigh and roll their eyes. It’s true that those with a more developed or experienced palate may pick up on smells and tastes that others might not, and for some this may seem a bit pretentious. But from one region to another, one producer to another, there are a lot of “weird” wine descriptors being thrown out there these days; to some they are flaws, while others seek wines specifically for these traits. 1. Cat Pee The first wine descriptor which has gotten a lot of attention, especially with the rise of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, is cat pee. Okay…maybe not the thing you want to associate with a wine, but it’s happening. And while some may see this characteristic as a turn off, there are also those out there that see this aroma as a depiction of a very high-end wine. Many of you still might not understand what this term is even referring to. Well, a chemical compound known as p-mentha-8-thiol-3-one can be found in some wines, which give them a certain tanginess. And while I’ve had a lot of wines, whites mainly, that were “tangy,” this cat pee thing takes it to a whole new level. Some wines may only offer a hint, while others might conjure memories of that time Fluffy was in really big trouble when you got home. Not something I like in my wines, but to each their own. 2. Barnyard Before you start thinking of wet hay and pigs and goats running around, this characteristic more often is used to describe a wine that takes on a rustic or earthy smell, or even gamey qualities. Well the culprit for this “barnyard” aroma is a yeast known as Brettanomyces; we call him “Brett” for short. It is actually not only common in wine, but has surfaced in the world of craft beer and spirits as well. For the most part this is one of the wine descriptors that I like, and is the result of this particular yeast making its way into aging barrels and winery cellars. It’s believed that fruit flies and other insects are the carriers of Brett and is a characteristic I find in a lot of Old World wines and especially in French wines, all with varying degrees of potency. Within Brett there are a few compounds which lend a variety of different sensory characteristics to a wine. Barnyard, horse stable, and band aid are all the result of 4-ethylphenol, while 4-ethylguaiacol can be responsible for the characteristics of spice, cloves, and bacon. While many of these are more trace traits of a wine, Brett has been nicknamed a “spoilage yeast”, as with most things in life too much is just simply not a good thing. I can remember a wine or two myself where the ‘band aid’ smell was rather unpleasant, but the hints of bacon fat in my French Syrahs are always welcome. But never fear as Brett can be controlled in the winery by the addition of sulfur dioxide. 3. Burnt Rubber or Matches Various sulfur compounds are used in the winemaking world, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide being two of them. These chemical compounds are used to either rid the wine of that unwanted Brett or to stabilize the wine. But they too, in excess, can be seen as an unwanted characteristic. The use of sulfur dioxide in winemaking goes back to Roman times, when it was used to keep wine vessels fresh and free from vinegar smells. It also serves as an antioxidant and antibiotic in wine, preventing it from spoilage or oxidation. It is the reason why many wine labels include the “contains sulfites” warning, though it is a naturally occurring compound in wine. But when overused either for the stabilization of wine or to prevent Brett or cork taint, sulfur dioxide will give a wine that burnt rubber or burnt match aroma. I’ve even had a few that reminded me of the smell of a rubber garden hose that has been out in the hot summer sun. And while this is caused by sulfur dioxide, high levels of hydrogen sulfide (a byproduct of yeast fermentation) can make a wine taste like rotten eggs. Yum, right? So let’s move on. 4. Gasoline I know what you’re thinking…he jumped right from the frying pan and into the fire. Gasoline, really? Yeah, this one is out there too. The first time I picked up the petrol or diesel like aromas in a German Riesling I was pretty put off by it. And not just in German Rieslings, but I’ve picked it up in some Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminers as well. But thinking back, I was just caught off guard. Now I’m not saying it’s a quality I look for in a wine…but over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to taste some of Germany’s best wines, so I’ve become more accustomed to it. But as the petrol thing can add a unique characteristic, the wines usually are balanced out with the fruit they are known for, the minerality of the soils, and their bright acidity. So while it may appear in some high-end German, Alsatian and even New Zealand wines, it’s not a characteristic I would really expect to find anywhere else. 5. Nail Polish Remover This last one falls under the “Volatile Acidity” category, or VA for short, in the wine world. As you’re well aware, acids are natural to wine, with grapes being comprised of some acids naturally, while others acids are created through the winemaking process. For the most part these acids are all a good thing. But as you’re seeing the trend here, when things get out of balance it can cause problems in a wine. As strong as the smell of nail polish remover (or acetone) is, when even a whiff of that aroma shows up in your wine it can certainly make you pull away from the glass. So what’s to blame on this one? Well it’s actually ethyl acetate, which is what gives a wine its perceived fruitiness. But excessive amounts will give a wine these pungent aromas and when combined with too much oxygen will give a wine more of a vinegar smell. I have had a few wines where this was more subtle, and blew off after being either decanted or in the glass for a while. But this one does border on a true wine fault. A lot of what we pick up in wine comes from our memory; from foods we have eaten to flowers we have grown in our gardens to that time you visited Uncle Ed on the farm. So when that person at the wine tasting starts throwing out words that might not make much sense to you, note that some of it may be from personal memory or experience and all based on the chemical compounds in the wines we drink. With any luck, maybe you too will be able to throw out wine descriptors like “cat pee” or “bacon fat” at your next wine social.