ask dr. vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs. You can also follow me on Twitter: @AskDrVinny.


Dear Dr. Vinny,

I've read reviews where the terms "cat pee" and "pencil shavings" were used in reference to wine taste. Are we really talking smell here, or do wine critics really know what these things taste like?

—Mike R., Richmond, Va.

Dear Mike,

Don't forget the relationship between taste and smell: Something like 75 percent of what we "taste" is actually what we smell. Try pinching your nose shut and taking a sip of wine. While still holding the wine in your mouth, let go of your nose, and you'll realize that you can't taste much of anything without smelling it, too. Your taste buds aren't good for much besides sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Your nose knows the rest.

So, when someone refers to a note in wine of something that they would not otherwise ingest, like cat piss or pencil shavings, they use those words because most people know how those things smell. You don't have to eat grass to know what it smells like.

And give a wine geek a break. Smell is the sense most tied to memory. Sometimes smelling a wine triggers memories that call for a bit of poetic license.

—Dr. Vinny

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