Tasting Romance: French Wine and the Senses

Last week I was up on Spring Mountain in Napa, tasting through wines with the team from Cain Vineyard & Winery. Christopher Howell, Wine-Grower/General Manager encouraged us to sip the wine without smelling it first. Further, to close our eyes – to rely on taste only, that and the feel of the wine in our mouth.

“Smelling and tasting,” said Howell, “is our chance to connect with nature.”  To take that a step further, our chance to connect with ourselves. How we immerse into and learn about the world from our own impressions.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone say that if eyes were shut, a certain wine would “taste red” when it was white (or vice versa). Brain science supports that our senses are woven deeply together, wired tightly with our mind and wrapped up in emotion.

In his book, I Taste Red, Jaime Goode “explores how our sensory system, psychology, philosophy, and flavor chemistry all play a central part in our perception and enjoyment of wine,” according to the summary from UC Press.

“To our brains, “taste” is actually a fusion of a food’s taste, smell, and touch into a single sensation,” states Dana Small, a neuroscientist at the John B. Pierce Laboratory in New Haven, Conn., and the Yale School of Medicine an article in Scientific American. 

Savoie wine, Loire Wine, Beaujolais Wine, Côte-Rôtie, Rhône wine

It is our senses that grant us the enjoyment of wine, food, travel, and other landmark experiences. Our senses also introduce us to the people in our lives, a gate to entertaining the most initial of connections. While many argue that Valentine’s Day is a commercial-only holiday, there should always be moments (days, holidays) that address the fact that love lives. We express and feel love through our senses, the miracle of our body as a translator, the same instinctive bumpers we employ to understand wine.

Pulling back the curtain on pleasure, senses, and celebration let’s explore a set of French wines, each with a name or essence evoking love and romance.

See “There is nothing invisible in this universe! There is only our lack of eyesight!” ~Mehmet Murat ildan

It’s like learning to crawl in wine speak, our acknowledgment of wine-by-color. Red wine. White wine. The basics. Then we pull up to stand, peek over the ledge and see that there are pink wines – rosé, Rosato, Rosado… Our sight is the key to our nascent impressions, a costume designer for the first act.

“Although sight is not technically part of taste, it certainly influences perception. Interestingly, food and drink are identified predominantly by the senses of smell and sight, not taste,” again from Small’s article.

Wine to try for sight: Famille Bougrier Pure Loire Rosé d’Anjou

This beautiful rosé is dry and incredibly fresh, packed with bright fruits. The wine is made through skin maceration and presents a brilliant popping pink. A vibrant acidity pushes the flavor up a notch, vivacity to match the robe and curvy body.

rose wine, French wine, steak frites, wine for valentine's day

A brilliant pink shines in this bottle of Pure Loire from Famille Bougrier Rosé d’Andjou. Credit: Jill Barth

Smell “Smells, I think, may be the last thing on earth to die.”  ~Fern Schumer Chapman

As habit dictates, at least for me, the next sense we call into action when tasting wine is smell. We have a more adequate vocabulary for describing scent experiences that taste experiences and tasting notes are often built on smell notes. We put our nose directly into the glass, gobbling aromatics with heady exposure.

“Smells also seem to come from the mouth,” says Small “even though there are no cells there responsible for detecting scents. Instead the sensation of strawberry, for example, depends upon activation of smell cells located at the end of the nasal passage.”

How does this work? Small explains further, “The information gathered by these cells is relayed to the mouth via a process called olfactory referral.”

Wine to try for smell: Jean Perrier et Fils Apremont Cuvée Gastronomie

This a rather unique wine for most American drinkers, made of the Jacquere which is grown in the Alpine region of Savoie. It is described as “mountain fresh” and “alpine clean” on WineSearcher. These are scent descriptors, given to assess the overall impression of everything the wine has to offer. Sniff out aromatics of fresh pear, green apples, and spring grass.

white wine, Alpine wine, Savoie Wine

A “mountain fresh” bottle from Jean Pierre et Fils in Savoie. Credit: Jill Barth

Touch “Touch has a memory.”  ~John Keats

The memory of touch. Do you recall the feel of a smooth wine bottle? The texture of print on a label, the deep punt on a bottle of bubbly. How about this: the sensation of pulling a cork from the recesses of the bottle, the gentle release. The balance of a stem between the fingers, the sway of the wine as it swirls. There is more to touch that we initially expect.

Wine to try for touch: Champagne Laurent-Perrier Brut

Opening a bottle of bubbly is an experience of sheer delight, full of touch sensations – the chill of the bottle, the twist of the cork, the gentle pressure of the pop. Not sure how to open and serve a bottle of Champagne? See my guide here.

How to open Champagne, what is champagne, Laurent-Perrier

A classic bottle from a classic house, Laurent-Perrier Brut. Credit: Jill Barth

Hear “There is more to hear in what is not said.”  ~Joyce Rachelle

When I think of sound, the outdoors comes to mind. A recent stroll through an organic vineyard buzzed with the sound of bees. Time spent in a high-altitude Rhône Valley vineyard, such as those of Vidal Fleury, is remembered by the urging of the wind in the ears. The sounds of growth, of life, of nature’s rhythms – these are essential symphonies. While drinkers may think of wine as what comes in our glass – wine is actually the fruit of a very lively ecosystem, a bath of nature where birdsong and thunderstorm are the tunes of the vineyard.

Wine to try for hearing: Vidal Fleury Côte-Rôtie, Brune & Blonde de VF

This wine is made of 95% Syrah dashed with 5% Viognier. A complex wine built of flavors of red fruit and spice. Aged sur lees for four years in barrels and wood vat foudres, large wooden containers that are often built within the cellar by skilled coopers. Also redolent of our sense of hearing: great conversation. Open this bottle and listen to your love.

Syrah, rhone wines, French wines, romantic wines

Vidal-Fleury Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blond de VF is made of 95% Syrah, typical of northern Rhône reds. Credit: Jill Barth

Taste “So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.” ~M.F.K Fisher

This brings us to taste – the biggie when it comes to wine. If it doesn’t taste good then the crescendo built by the senses is nothing but a house of cards. But ask yourself, do you really know your sense of taste? Can you rely on the memory of flavors tasted before to determine if this next bottle is favorable to you?

Taste “focuses primarily on sweet, salt, bitter and sour,” says Madeline Puckette of WineFolly. “There are also two disputed tastes: “umami” (i.e. deliciousness) and “metallic” but it’s contentious as to whether or not either of them constitutes a true taste or just a combination of textures and tastes (i.e. a flavor).”

Sweet, salt, bitter, and sour. Not really wine tasting notes, but that is the short of it – our bodies are designed to interpret those tastes and beyond that, other senses (mainly smell) step in to create a sense of flavor.

One of my most interesting in-depth tasting experiences last year came in the form of a round of Beaujolais wines. These are made primarily of the Gamay grape in a region that is south of Bourgogne, beginning at the city Lyon. While Beaujolais is often associated with the juicy and fruity nouveau version, there are more complex and rich wines from Beaujolais Cru such as my suggested bottle from Saint-Amour.

Wine to try for taste: Saint-Amour, Vignerons de Bel-Air

For Valentine’s Day this wine comes named properly, in honor of the saint of love. But it’s not just a hat trick – this is a high-quality wine from Saint-Amour, one of the most distinct Beaujolais growing areas where many vignerons own land in both the Beaujolais and the Mâconnais. Saint-Amour wines with slight age exhibit suppleness and complexity and a spicy richness that exceeds expectations.

Beaujolais, red wine, wine for Valentine's Day

Saint-Amour Vignerons de Bel-Air Beaujolais. Credit: Jill Barth

The French Winophiles

The February topic for the French Winophiles is Wine and Love. Look forward to the following stories from our writers:

Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “L’Amour dans une Bouteille ou Quatre”

Susannah Gold from Avvinare tells us about “Love in the Rhone Valley”

L.M. Archer at binNotes shares “The Hedonistic Taster | № 36 | #Winophiles + Love: L’Amour du Patrimoine” 

Jeff at Food, Wine, Click! gives us “French Wines for ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ Valentines”

Here on L’Occasion we take a sensory route with “Tasting Romance: French Wine and the Senses”

Michelle of Rocking Red Blog helps us “Celebrate La Saint-Valentin with French Wine”

David of Cooking Chat dishes up “French Wine Picks and Pairings for Valentine’s Day”

Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Wines”

Liz from What’s in that Bottle pairs “French Wines & Fondue for a Fun Valentine’s Day”

Gwen at Wine Predator shares “Sweethearts: French Wines and Pizza”

Join us on Twitter this Saturday, February 17, 2018 at 10 am CST/17h in France for a live chat. Find us and join in with the hashtag #Winophiles.

Please note: Some of these wines were provided as media samples. All opinions are my own.


31 thoughts on “Tasting Romance: French Wine and the Senses

  1. I can recall the instructor in a WSET class talking about the feel of wine in your mouth. She too asked us to close our eyes and experience how the wine felt on our tongues. Thoroughly enjoyed your article taking us through “wine sense” Jill!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this article Jill and I am going to separate and try all my senses in my next wine tasting. I am so used to looking at it first, then smelling, then swishing, then swallowing or spitting that I don’t really stop to appreciate each sense individually.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fun way to think through using all our senses with wine and food. My daughter found some black opaque wine glasses for me for Christmas a few years ago, so fun to take away the knowledge of whether the wine is red or white when tasting.Thanks Jill!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a beautiful sensory exploration! So much of what I love about wine is how it appeals on so many different levels.


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