Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

Randal Caparoso The Truth Is Out There!
© Randal Caparoso
As everyone knows, "nothing but the truth" is virtually an impossible task; yet there are few things as troubling as elements of untruth, or deception. In the ideal world, our friends are completely trustworthy, the food we consume is 100 percent pure and bacteria free, and the appliances we purchase always dependable and in working order. Not possible, but nonetheless preferred.

I was reading in a recent Business Week magazine about Hindu nationalists trashing some of the 27 outlets of McDonald's located in India, where in respect for Hindu dietary restrictions no beef products are sold, only vegetable and lamb burgers. What brought this on? A May 1 lawsuit in the U.S. seeking damages from McDonald's for vegetarians who have been unknowingly consuming french fries flavored by a "natural flavor" derived from beef extract.

I think that what bothers vegetarians and Hindus so much is not the fact that a combination of animal products is used in portions amounting to no more than a few parts per trillion to give McDonald's fries its trademark flavor (for decades McDonald's fried its potatoes in beef tallow and soy oil, switching to pure vegetable oil only in 1990), but rather the disingenuous company response that "no" animal products are used at all.

But is, say, the 0.000000000003 percent beef extract used in a super-sized package of fries an animal product or not? Technologically, perhaps no. Spiritually and philosophically, closer to yes. But in respect to the physiological ability of the human palate to detect flavor, an unequivocal YES. Why do you think McDonald's, and virtually all processed food companies, use flavor extracts and essences? While McDonald's can say that they have not been feeding their Hindu customers an actual beef product, they certainly have been appealing to their basic, raw instinct for the taste of beef!

In the book, Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser describes "flavorists" - scientists who develop the minuscule chemical compounds used to flavor fast foods such as McDonald's fries, and virtually all the processed foods we consume today - as "discreet," "charming, cosmopolitan, and ironic"... the sort "who not only enjoyed fine wine, but could also tell you the chemicals that gave each vintage its unique aroma."

Like Schlosser's flavorists, oenologists - scientists who make wine - have long been aware of the fact that the aromas and flavors which distinguish a Cabernet Sauvignon from a Merlot can be attributed to natural chemical compounds amounting to barely a few parts per trillion. For instance, the minty, often herbaceous character of Cabernet Sauvignon has been isolated to flavor also found in bell peppers which the human palate can detect at approximately .02 parts per billion.

Ask an oenologist what gives the Chardonnay grape its characteristic appley taste, and his answer might be ethyl-2-methyl butyrate. The taste of Chardonnay when it is barrel aged on its lees probably derives its current popularity from minuscule portions of diacetyl (like "butter") and methyl-2-peridylketone (a popcorny taste).

Whatever the case may be, with even no experience with a given wine type any consumer will still have taste reactions not dissimilar to one's first taste of McDonald's fries, since more than 99 percent of what we perceive as flavor is related to our sense of smell. If we like it, consciously or unconsciously, there's a good chance we will go back to it. The truth, as they say, is in the tasting.

Here's how some of the most popular varietal wine types smell, and thus "taste," to us:

White grapes

Chardonnay - Originally the "white Burgundy" of France (now planted everywhere fine wine is made), which is quite apple-like, but also often pear-like or pineappley; and when fermented and aged in white oak barrels (as is commonly done), having the addition of creamy, vanillin, charred wood (often described as "toasty"), and even buttery aromas and flavors.

Sauvignon Blanc (also called "Fumé" Blanc) - Green melon aromas, often tinged by noticeably herbaceous (like cut grass, weeds, bell pepper, jalapeño, sweet pea, and other herbal associations) qualities, with quieter notes of minerals or flint (a somewhat "smoky" minerality), citrus fruits (especially lemon), and wild flowers. Bottled in France under its place names (notably, Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre).

Riesling - Sweet, flowery perfumes, usually overshadowing citrus (lemon and orange peel) and stone fruit (such as peach and apricot) aromas; when grown in Germany, often picking up subtle mineral or flint-like undertones.

Pinot Gris (called Pinot Grigio in Italy) - Interesting mix of floral, fruity (sweet melons, apples or pears), and often minerally (like wet stones) aromas; and when aged in oak (common in France, Oregon and California, but not so much in Italy), picking up honeyed or creamy/vanillin qualities.

Chenin Blanc - Bottled in France under its place name (Vouvray), giving sweet honey and floral scents alongside apple or pear-like aromas.

Viognier - Violet, honeysuckle, flower related perfumes, underscored by a white pepper-like spiciness and often a tropical (like mango) fruitiness.

Gewurztraminer - Powerful lychee-like fruitiness along with floral, peppery, and sometimes musky fragrances.

Red grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon - "Black" fruit related aromas such as blackberry, blackcurrant and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), tinged with minty and herbaceous (weedy, bell peppery, and even olive-like) complexities; almost always aged in white oak barrels, which add vanillin, smoky (like cigar boxes), and often dill-like elements.

Merlot - Juicy, black cherry-like aroma with side notes of other dark fruits (blackberry, plum, blackcurrant) and herbaceousness similar to (but perhaps more herbal tea-like than) Cabernet Sauvignon; usually given vanillin and smoky/toasty oak aged complexities.

Cabernet Franc - One of the natural "parent" grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon (at least according to vine scientists utilizing DNA technology), and thus giving similar herbaceous qualities (green pepper, mint, olives, cut grass, etc.) along with a distinctive, sweet raspberry-like fruitiness sometimes verging on framboise (raspberry liqueur).

Pinot Noir - While somewhat elusive, the nose picks up this red varietal as a mix of flower (like the scent of violet and rose petal), fruit (both red fruits similar to, but not exactly like, strawberry, and darker fruits from blackberry to blueberry), and herbs (often pepperminty, and sometimes peppery); usually combined with smoky, white French oak qualities to create varying degrees of complexity, almost always refined and haunting.

Zinfandel - Blackberry and/or raspberry fruitiness often intensified to the point of jamminess (like berries cooked with pectin) alongside distinctive black peppery and hard spice (especially cinnamon and clove) aromas; when picked overripe (not uncommon in California's warmer climate vineyards), becomes raisiny or prune-like.

Syrah (called Shiraz in Australia) - Somewhat exotic mix of sweet, rather floral (suggesting violet) perfumes, dark fruits (from blackberry to plum), and a distinctive, crushed peppercorn-like spiciness; often enriched by pungently vanillin, smoky, or dill-like oak-derived flavors.

Sangiovese - The classic red grape of Tuscany (now also cultivated in California), giving a red cherry-like fruitiness, often tinged with crushed, dried leafy, woodsy, licorice and occasionally tea-like nuances.

Having trouble handling the "truth?" Well, at least with wine the search satisfies a multitude of inclinations, from sensory to intellectual, not to mention the sheer gastronomic pleasure of it all!

May 27, 2001

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