Grape & Grain
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A wine’s hook is a thunderbolt that bypasses mere words and thoughts

Aside from its contribution to the sensual pleasures of a glass, the hook is like a lightning bolt that sets the limbic system ablaze

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 5:56pm

The origin story of this column is especially dear to me, as it is testament to the bliss that is a Master of Wine student’s post-exam life. You see, in the interests of preserving my delicate olfactory instrument (aka my nose) I had essentially forsworn perfume for two-and-a-half years (with, I confess, the occasional guilty lapse limited to very special occasions, like non-wine dinners).

A few weeks ago, traversing the seemingly interminable duty-free concession that London’s Heathrow airport subjects travellers to, I found myself for the first time in so very long, rather than whooshing by in a fruitless attempt to avoid inhalation, free to sniff the air with wanton gusto. New perfumes abounded.

How to be a wine taster: calm down, enjoy the experience, and meditate if that helps

Although what I first encountered was a wreckage of olfactory discord (especially passing by the truly god awful Thierry Mugler counter), I gradually wended my way to that one true light in a world of florid artifice: Hermès fragrances. Hermès has what I will refer to in my more indelicate moments as “some crack they put in there”. This “crack”, or shall we call it a hook for the sake of decorum, is some deeply compelling and addictive substance common to all Hermès fragrances that is like catnip to this wine lover’s nose.

Is it the leather and benzoin found in both my long-time favourite Kelly Calèche (and incidentally also in the men’s fragrance Terre d’Hermès, showing that hooks know no gender)? Or is it the cedar-sandalwood duo that underpins both Terre d’Hermès and original Calèche; or perhaps the blend of exotic spice that suffuses the Jardin series? I don’t know, but whatever it is so seduces that I frequently find myself involuntarily trailing somebody (usually, though not always, an unnaturally tan middle-aged man) around the block before I recover my frazzled senses.

Once I had pulled my head out of a cloud of the brand new Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate – top note rhubarb, middle note red berry, base (and suspected hook) white musk – I paused to observe that most of the world’s best wines also have their own distinctive brand of hook.

Like many compelling things in life, most of the time this hook in a wine is something rather … unseemly. Rarely anything so boorish as the alleged ingredients of the “Secretions Magnifiques”, the hook in wine is an indefinable element that is not strictly fruit, oak (vanilla is yummy, but hardly the stuff my addictions are made of) or even the general aroma of decay that gradually envelopes all wines as they age.

With a more strictly intellectual wine such as Bordeaux (Médoc especially) the hook is some combination of cedar, pencil dust, and moist tobacco (sniff the lip end of a cigar sometime). To me this simultaneously ethereal and earthy perfume is the quintessence of Bordeaux-ness.

In pinot-based wines the hook is often something decidedly more indecorous. World’s Best Sommelier Andreas Larsson likes any pinot that will flood his mind with dirty thoughts. Karen MacNeil of The Wine Bible describes the scent of California pinot as “a man who’s been out running in the heat”. However, attraction/disgust has its limits: “Running three hours,” she specifies, “but not four.”

Aside from its obvious contribution to the sensual pleasures of wine, for me the hook is most valuable if viewed as a tool of identification: a sensory lightning bolt to set the limbic system ablaze. While more prosaic aromas invariably pass ploddingly through the conscious realm of verbal thought – “what am I smelling here: red fruit or black fruit? French oak vanilla or American oak coconut? Menthol or eucalyptus?” – the hook can push us straight to Barolo with road tar, straight to Rioja with hand soap and ether, straight to Corton-Charlemagne with a smoky struck match.

A difficulty with the hook is that it is inherently personal. While “tar” is an acceptable description in an MW exam, and “sweat” just about permissible if used for an especially violent sauvignon blanc or semillon, “warm spot behind husband’s ear” is not (sorry, husband).

Master of Wine? I doubt it, when I can make a mistake like this in an exam

Worse still, in certain instances the hook can utterly betray us, leading us astray when our logical brain would have saved us. For example, I will shamelessly seize this opportunity to excuse my inability to identify the two Bordeaux in our exams (no, I haven’t got over it yet) by saying that they simply didn’t have that Bordeaux hook (though Chateaux Léoville Barton and Berliquet who made them probably wouldn’t agree).

Is anything to be gleaned from this idiosyncratic, fickle and somewhat crudely named phenomenon? I think so, if only insofar as it builds on that tired phrase “I don’t know a thing about wine but I know what I like”. Clearly what we are all looking for in life (outside of MW exams) is a wine with our particular hook in it.