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Blog: Of Petrol Aromas and Pee Flavours

Posted: Saturday, 06 August 2011 12:54

Blog: Of Petrol Aromas and Pee Flavours

August 06: At a recent lunch in Austria with a couple of Masters of Wine among others, the issue whether petrol aromas in Riesling was a quality or defect came up. A well known Rhone producer had just introduced his Alsace wines and made a comment that the much described petrol aromas and flavours in an aged Riesling was in fact a wine fault. There are many such descriptions in Tasting Notes which could be a quality but a turn- off for some wine drinkers.

I am not particularly fond of petrol flavour but it helps me judge the age of a German Riesling older than say, a decade. Many well-known producers and journalists often proudly describe this as a characteristic of fine Riesling. One of the MWs said that the Germans had meant ‘petrolly’ which has no equivalent in English and petrol was not meant to be the way to describe it. A couple of days later a lady wine expert  from Germany soon to become an MW felt that in Alsace, in fact, it was a defect that appeared with too much sun on the leaves.

Description of Sauvignon Blanc invariably brings up cat’s pee as a positive characteristic. Seemingly, the perpetrator of the term must be a cat lover but cat’s pee! Reminds me at least, of one of our past Prime Ministers who was not only a prohibitionist (Delhi went dry for a while!) but drank his own pee daily to stay healthy. This was pre-1991 when the 60 Minutes programme on the US TV coined the word The French Paradox and averred that moderate red wine daily was healthy for you and had anti-aging effect.

Many times the wine flavour is happily described as having tobacco or tar. Being a non-smoker and in fact anti smoker, just reading about it used to put me off to an extent. The reminder of a sweaty horse’s leather saddle does not do too much to my appetite for wine either. I love the minerality in a white wine but  have come across people who do not like the ‘saltiness’ in their glass which is a part of this wonderful characteristic.

My point is that the descriptions are generally individualistic in nature though the basic flavours of cherries, apples, tropical fruits, citrus or asparagus, mint, spices, chocolate and coffee, oak vanilla, and aromas of flowers like roses and acacia are fairly universal.  A couple of decades ago I had met a well-know Napa producer whose Cabernet Sauvignon was delicious but I could not spot all the characteristic that his Tasting Notes said (who had tasted black-berries in India twenty years ago!). ‘Neither can I,’ he said. This had really set me off on an unbridled, individualistic journey for the discovery of different wines from different regions and countries. Even today, I occasionally come across an aroma I find almost repulsive while most fellow judges at the international wine competitions find it charming.

Not to talk of the regular premium domestic wines, even the low- end wines in India have descriptions on the back label and their poetic Tasting Notes that would make even the Growth Bordeaux Chateaux owners squirm. All this jargon could be really confusing for a novice who, no wonder, gets intimidated by wine unnecessarily.

My word of advice to those-don’t worry about the petrol, or pee in your wine- or tobacco, just take slow and full sips and focus on them while enjoying wine - the aromas (or bouquet in case the wine has evolved over the past few years), the flavour-whatever it reminds you of and the after-taste-how long does the impression last on your palate and gullet after that sip is gone. To me, a good wine is the one where I have to restrain myself from taking the next sip or the glass and perhaps opening another bottle.  Maybe you love the flavour of tobacco. You might find the petrol flavour enticing-or not.  Never feel shy discussing the wine or asking questions from your wine neighbour-even write to people like me whose opinion you value.  But you are the king of that glass-and the judge. This also implies that before forming your opinion, you need to be fair to the wine after listening to what the colour, aromas, flavour s and end (aftertaste) communicate to you in unison, along with the general impression it leaves with you.

Subhash Arora

Names of the people involved in this Blog have been intentionally avoided- to stay focused on the issue



Subhash Arora Says:

Thanks Don. Thanks Dan, you are very precise and correct. Subhash

Posted @ August 11, 2011 12:45


Subhash Arora Says:


Thanks for your comments Ulrich. First of all I have no problem with the petroleum flavour or aromas and it helps me identify the grape and the age. I love the Mosel wines and am on record saying that the off -dry 8% alcohol wines are perfect with Indian food. I am surprised I did not hear protest from Mosel producers when the statement about it being a fault came from France. I for one think of it as a characteristic of older Rieslings. Who told you I was at Vinexpo? I was in Portugal that week attending the OIV Conference in Porto. Incidentally, I don't like to visit Vinexpo precisely for the reason that I know so many producer friends that they cannot all be visited and I am not spritely enough to visit all of them. Subhash Arora

Posted @ August 11, 2011 12:22


Langguth, Ulrich Says:


Mr. Subash Arora, in all RESPECT, I have to protest. First of all, the two of us are too experienced not to respect the taste of our Next one. Having produced top RIESLING wines, partly with NOBLE ROT or BORTYTIS, for the last 50 years I cannot but underline that this overmature condition which produces one of the finest what can happen to white wines. Without NOBLE ROT ( which results in - what some people wrongly describe as ' Petrol ', neither Chateaux Yquem could produce its fine wines, neither could we produce the finest TBA's, neither could Hungary succeed producing its great desert wines. This taste and this bouquet which when it comes from an well-aged Riesling is simply the ' drink of the gods' A shame that you neglected visiting our booth at Vinexpo, we would hav exposed to an outstanding 1997 and 1995 Riesling Auslese where many of our guests were simply stunned. with regards and respects to you. Ulrich Langguth

Posted @ August 11, 2011 12:19


Don Welch Says:

Wonderful, informed advice. There is a world to explore if we are interested but pleasure is there for everyone.

Posted @ August 11, 2011 11:22


Elissaveta Zaharieva Says:

Subhash, I can’t restrain myself from sharing it: the tobacco leaf aroma you are referring to is quite different from the lit cigarette smoke smell. In Bulgaria we happen to have few tobacco processing plants and the aroma I associate with the respective nuance in wine is more like autumn leaves and faded spice. At least that’s the aroma that lingers in the air around the tobacco plant building.

Posted @ August 11, 2011 11:19


Dan Traucki Says:

Hi Subhash I couldn't agree with you more on this subject.In my 25 years in the Australian wine industry I have heard (and read) sooo many inane and ridiculous wine descriptions that one could almost write a book on the subject. Despite what anybody else says or writes about a wine the ultimate test is when you drink it and make the judgement as to whether you like it or not. I say to people all the time - instead of reading about how somebody else describes it- try it for your self. Cheers

Posted @ August 11, 2011 11:10


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