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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What the heck is Tim Fish talking about when he says Merlot tastes (or smells) like tomato leaf? What does a tomato leaf taste (or smell) like?

—Robert L., San Diego

Dear Robert,

I feel so sorry for you that you don’t know what a tomato leaf smells like, since it’s absolutely one of the best smells ever. I grow tomatoes, so when I’m picking them, watering them or staking them, I love getting the intoxicating smell on my hands. It smells like a fresh tomato, mixed with a pungent, fresh, green scent and an earthy undertone. The next time you see a tomato plant, I command you to get your hands in there and learn this scent. I think it’s mostly a positive note in wine, unless it’s overpowering.

For many years it was thought that tomato leaves were toxic, so I doubt anyone is recommending you taste a tomato leaf. I’ve read recently that the levels of the toxic alkaloid found in the leaves are at such low levels that it’s becoming more common to see them as a component of some dishes, including adding leaves to a tomato sauce.

Other leaves are used as descriptors among wine lovers—tobacco leaf, tea leaf and bay leaf are pretty common, and I’m also seeing more shiso leaf descriptors these days. Shiso leaves are those green things you sometimes find on sushi plates that I love to munch on—they’re a touch bitter, with a slight minty taste. I sometimes see celery leaf as a descriptor, especially for Sauvignon Blancs. And sometimes a wine is just “leafy” or smells like “wet leaves,” which is similar to “herbal” and often a positive descriptor.

—Dr. Vinny

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