The results of a six-year study of New Zealand’s acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc wine were recently released, in which scientists confirmed what connoisseurs had known for some time: it emanates a combination of aromas identified as passion fruit, asparagus, and — this is a direct quote — cat’s pee.
Before you start conjuring up images of cats being kept at wineries in cramped cages and being forced to drink lots of fluids, I hasten to add that no actual cat pee is used in the production of New Zealand wines. It’s just that during the fermentation process, some chemical reaction happens, giving it the scent of cat urine. We’re told by these experts that’s a good thing, while it would not be desirable to drink wine that smells like dog poop. Perhaps if you’re a demented old woman living in an attic with 37 feline companions you get used to having almost everything taste like cat’s pee, but given a choice, most of the rest of us would probably prefer wine that is more reminiscent of hand sanitizer.
Wine snobs make themselves easy targets for mockery with pronouncements like that one, but I understand how they get themselves into these pickles. (Hm — wine that has pickle overtones? Nah.) What they are earnestly trying to do is characterize the subtle scents and flavors in complex wines, but words fail them. Oenophiles (the wine-lover’s word for “wine lover”) are at least trying to comprehend the traits they love about wine. At the other end of the spectrum are the consumers who will gulp down any old thing as long as it makes their date start to look more attractive.
Just up the evolutionary ladder from those who admire wine only for its alcohol content are wine beginners. They know that wine is red or white. Or sometimes pink.
Intermediate wine drinkers have learned not to put ice cubes in their wine glass, and understand that names like Merlot and Zinfandel have to do with the different varieties of grapes from which each is produced. Intermediates also understand how a so-called “dry” wine differs from a sweet wine. They’re starting to have preferences for one varietal over another, and possibly even which wineries make an especially good version of what they like.
Advanced wine drinkers know about things like strong tannins (the pucker-provoking component in some red wines) and long finish (meaning that the flavor stays on the palate for a while after the wine has been swallowed). They have also learned to appreciate how certain wines complement certain foods, and which don’t go well together. For example, they’ve found out that if you drink a robust red as an accompaniment to fowl, your teeth will feel a little furry. They might also notice — and have the good manners not to mention — that the wine you served today needs to be cellared a bit longer, meaning that it would be even better if you had opened it next year.
Finally we come to the connoisseur. They might not be able to spell connoisseur without the help of a dictionary, but they’re the ones who can detect hints of plum and cigar box in their ’96 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. And, of course, they got a whiff of cat’s pee in the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The most discriminating among them can even tell you if the cat was a Siamese or a Calico.