How can a wine that tastes like gasoline be any good?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

A friend of mine mentioned a Wine Spectator review of a wine that said it tasted of “road tar.” I didn't believe him until I read a review for an Alsace Riesling, which tasted of “petrol.” The wine was rated 87. How can a wine that tastes of gasoline (or road tar) be any good? Anybody who siphons gas spits out any that gets in their mouth and not just due to it being a poison. So what gives with the “petrol” description? If it tastes of gas, how can it rate an 87? Am I missing something here? Thanks!

—Edward L., Glen Mills, Pa.

Dear Edward,

There are a handful of terms wine lovers use regularly that sound strange to most people. Road tar and petrol are up there, as are cat pee, pencil shavings, fresh-cut grass, and minerally notes like wet rocks or hot bricks, among others.

Most wine lovers don’t go around chewing on grass or road tar or sipping cat pee or gasoline, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t using these terms with some merit. Remember that taste and smell are part of the same sensory process. If you’ve smelled fresh asphalt and tar while driving down a road on a hot summer day, you might recognize that same note in some lovely Barolos or reds from the Rhône. It’s generally a positive term, but your own tolerance might vary, and it typically only works when it’s in balance with other elements.

I’ve covered petrol before, and that note of kerosene, gasoline or vinyl that can be found in Rieslings in particular. The source of that aroma has been identified as a chemical compound known as TDN (1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene), which can be more pronounced in riper or older Rieslings. I really like that distinctive smell, especially if it’s not too overwhelming. It kind of reminds me of the new car smell—not everyone likes it, but for those of us who do, we get a kick out of taking a big whiff.

—Dr. Vinny

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