Wine is spoiled grape juice. It’s old squished grapes mixed with yeast that get you drunk. But lots of people have a lot of things to say about wine, and maybe you’ve wondered what it is that gets them so jazzed over rotten grapes. Well, a lot of their enjoyment comes from biology, chemistry and psychology, as well as the kinds of molecules that travel from the glass into your body.
Bianca Bosker knew little about wine when she started writing her new book Cork Dork, which came out on March 28th. Bosker followed sommeliers, scientists and wine lovers on an olfactory quest to understand why some people get so excited over wine, and whether all the fancy wine-words you hear at restaurants have any real meaning.
Bosker came by the Gizmodo office to teach someone (me) whose wine experience is mostly limited to playing beer pong with Franzia. Here are a few things that you could do if you want to enjoy a glass and don’t want to look or sound dumb, with the help of Bosker, her book, and a little bit of wine science.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about wine. What does matter is that you don’t just order something because you’ve never heard of it. You might think you want a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, when in reality your taste buds would prefer anything else. If you don’t know the answer to “What are you in the mood for tonight?” a sommelier might just ask you if you prefer red or white wine, Old World or New World. (European, or Old World wines, generally taste earthier, while New World wines from other parts of the world tend to taste fruitier.)
The only things you need to tell a sommelier? What tastes you like, and your price range. That’s it. I pretended I had 150 bucks and only liked the taste of bitter beers—and Bosker immediately recommended a Nebbiolo, a wine from the Northwestern Italian Piedmont region. If you don’t know the answer to the sommelier’s questions, they might get creative and even ask you your favorite band—that’s what Bosker did when she worked as a sommelier. Wine enjoyment is as much psychology as biology.
“If you’re there with an open honest curiosity and desire to learn, someone will want to just give you that transformative bottle,” Bosker told Gizmodo. “They might knock ten dollars off the price just to give you that experience.”
You might think that humans are bad smellers—after all, we have fewer active smell genes than rats and mice—350 to maybe 1000, Bosker reports. But that doesn’t necessarily make us worse off, because we also have way better brains.
Wine is first and foremost a smelly experience. It’s one of the most volatile-dense liquids, meaning it’s full of molecules that evaporate from the surface and can be detected by your nose. You really can smell the difference between some of those molecules, too. Your nose can detect at least a thousand scents, maybe more, with little chemical detectors inside your nose. All you need to do is start sniffing. “It’s correcting an oversight that took place when we were little. People teach us that fire engines were red and dogs bark,” she explained, but “wine will always smell like wine unless you develop an alphabet of smells you can identify and sink your nose into.”
That takes practice. Smell all the fruits and vegetables at the store, be aware of what you smell walking down the block, sniff your friends, et cetera. Researchers Bosker spoke with also mentioned a few crazier methods to potentially improve your sense of smell. Their suggestions included: cocaine (without elaborating), electrically shocking yourself while sniffing something to associate the two memories, or even having sex while smelling wine (which, notes Bosker, seems like an invitation to cover yourself in Chablis). Obviously, these are mostly conjecture and you shouldn’t do anything dumb or dangerous.
Once you’ve trained yourself to become more aware of the smells in your life, and to build them into your memories as you would colors or words, you might be able to pick out certain chemicals in wine. Pyrazines give Cabernet Suvignon its green bell pepper smell. Thiols can smell like grapefruit and other fruits, or cat pee. Terpenes give Muscats and Rieslings a floral scent. Rotundone smells like peppercorns. There are plenty other examples. If it smells like vinegar, send it back. Swishing the wine in the glass can help unleash these chemicals, as can tilting the glass to increase the surface area when you stick your schnoz in.
Flavor and taste are completely different things. Taste comes from certain molecules interacting with your taste buds, while flavor is the combination of taste and scent. “The thing is that flavor is not just something that’s created by taste and smell,” Bosker added. “Flavor is created by what we see, hear and feel.” Drinking wine should be a full-body experience.
While your tongue isn’t broken into a map the way your kindergarten teacher told you it was, it can still detect sour-tasting acids, sweet sugar molecules, salts, bitter compounds present in different plants, and the brothy umami flavor from amino acids, the taste that gives shiitake mushrooms their character. You also have taste buds throughout your digestive tract, even in your intestines, for your body to anticipate what might be coming down the pipeline that it will have to digest.
To fully engage your senses, with the wine in your mouth and without leaning your head back, open your mouth a little bit and suck down some air as you keep the liquid on your tongue. You should hear a gurgling sound (but not a Listerine gargle) which will send some of the volatile compounds back up into the smell receptors behind your nose.
You have now properly tasted wine. If you like it, swallow it and drink more. If you don’t like it or don’t want to drink it, spit it out. “At my first tasting group I went there to learn how to taste and it turns out that was way too advanced for my level,” Bosker told us. “They actually coached me on spitting. You have to spit with confidence.”
Some people have devoted their lives to smelling and tasting wine, and can tell you the kind of grape it was made from, where it was grown and in what year from a swirl, sniff and taste alone. They can tell you the alcohol content from how far down their throat the alcohol burns—higher proofs burn further. They can tell the acid content of the wine from how much saliva they make (more saliva means more acid), or the level of tannins from whether it makes their gums feel rough. (By the way, dryness refers to how sweet the wine is, not how many tannins it has. The less sweet it tastes, the more dry it’s called.) They can tell how full-bodied the wine is from the alcohol and sugar content together (more of both is fuller).
“On the other hand, and people have said this, if someone says there are notes of the Empire State Building or a finely crafted haute couture dress, they’re lying to you,” Bosker told us.
But who cares? Bosker said, “You can let yourself take pleasure from this composite experience,” all of the different notes combined that let you enjoy the wine.
Smells might bring you back to certain places, like a campfire or being with your grandmother, writes Bosker. You might recognize smells like these in your wine, or maybe you’ll smell something the sommelier doesn’t smell. It doesn’t matter. This is your life, live it how you want.
Once your wine is in front of you, you might smell the pyrazines, thiols, and rotundones. Or you might smell grape juice. Either way, the most important thing is that you like what you’re drinking. “The wine must be yummy,” Paul Grecio, owner of the Terroir wine bars, told Bosker. “One sip leads to a second sip, one glass leads to a second glass, one bottle leads to a second bottle.” If you like the taste of Franzia or Carlo Rossi, that’s fine. If you prefer an 1893 vintage, that’s fine too—all that matters is that you want to taste it again.