Don’t know what black currant is?

February 16th, 2010

Black Currant.

Black Currant.

People new to wine find some aromas or flavors in tasting notes exotic or foreign. They may have trouble identifying those aromas. They may simply not be familiar with the fruit being referenced. Its understandable, then, that they would find wine intimidating.

To the question: “How can a wine, made from grapes, have all these aromas and flavors?”, I offer the following: Biological diversity on this planet appears broad if it is judged on form and appearance, but there is tremendous similarity in the biochemistry and physiology of all organisms. Subsequently, compounds commonly associated with the aromas and flavors of one plant (or its fruit) are rather ubiquitous throughout nature.

Of course, the process of fermentation also augments these compounds or possibly transforms a compound already in the grape into the compounds identified with the referenced fruit. Sometimes, it is a synergistic interaction of two or more aromatic compounds that gives the impression of the fruit in question.

Now, I have to pick a bone of contention with my fellow wine evaluators (professional, amateur and in-between): Too often, they say a wine has aromas of black currant when I have had the wine and there was no trace of it. Other times, the wine had distinct, stunning black currant aromas and other reviewers blow it, calling the wine “green” or mistakenly attributing the aroma to “bell pepper”.

Certainly there is some small variation in the same wine from bottle to bottle and between tasting environments. However, what this disparity in tasting notes points to is a lack of the ability of some evaluators to accurately (or correctly) identify an aroma. This ability is a question of olfactory memory. It’s a function of language and is achievable through learning (or exposure). It is not unlike being able to recognize an object by sight or a song by a hearing a few bars.

Because this ability is teachable (and “learnable”), the disparity in what different tasters report can be reduced with training: given the same set of reference aromas and repeated exposure, previously discordant evaluators will report more concordant findings.

This sensory accuracy may not be of great import to casual consumers or enthusiasts. It is, however, a skill that should be required of those making public evaluations and recommendations. Aromas, flavors and textures of a wine are more than sensory attributes that one may enjoy or prefer (or not). They have very real, tangible, meaning for a wine: its provenance, its future, its food pairing and, yes, its quality.

There is so much misinformation and untruths about how wine and our sensory physiology work circulating among casual and professional wine enthusiasts that I think both amateurs and professionals could benefit from seeking out and using reference aromas and subsequently broadening their understanding of wine.

Among my goals is educating and empowering readers to become more confident and informed in their wine appreciation. So, from time to time, I want to offer my readers easily-obtainable reference aromas I know to be accurate. Today, I focus on black currant.

Growing up in Poland, we had black currants (and red and white currants) growing in our garden and commercially produced black currant juice was a staple. Living in the states, I have found one Polish black currant juice which is true to the real thing (I drank it almost daily when I was in med school in Cracow). Those living in larger population centers on the east or west coast of the United States, as well as in the greater Chicago area, will have no problem finding this brand of black currant juice in local Polish or European stores or delis. Those more removed from these brick-and-mortar retailers, can find the juice on line: here, here and here.

As with any reference aroma (or flavor), the idea is to compare the reference to the wine at hand. This process trains your brain to recognize the aroma the same way practice trains a musician or a ballet dancer. At a cost of five dollars or less per liter, this is a very good (and delicious) reference tool.

For more information about your senses of smell and taste, see here. For more general tips on tasting wine, see here.


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3 Responses to “Don’t know what black currant is?”

  1. John Kelly Says:

    Arthur – I use 1mL of creme de cassis in 50mL of neutral white wine as my “currant” aroma reference. Consequently for consistency I don’t refer to “currants” in my aroma descriptions, but to “cassis.” Not exactly the same but close enough, and accessible to more consumers. I’m probably not the only one around who has Cassis in the pantry for finishing sauces – particularly for fowl with 40 cloves of garlic.

  2. Thomas @ The Blog Wine Cellar Says:

    Great post! I think people that evaluate wine all have different sensory perception and therefore one person will smell black currant and another won’t. When reading wine reviews I think it’s most important to note the authors experience tasting but also the commentary on the balance of the wine and the overall impression it leaves on them. Descriptors are used to spark imagination and get the reader thirsty! But then again everyone has to take wine evaluations and reviews with a grain of salt because they are just opinions anyways….Cheers~

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