Sunday, June 5, 2011

Wine and Roses: Pairing Fragrance and Flavor

Of all the rose collections we have toured over the years, the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden remains our favorite place to experience roses on a grand scale. 

Their collection of 5,000 roses representing close to 1,500 varieties is large enough to overwhelm the senses yet the lay-out is intimate enough to be able to enjoy and appreciate the beauty in not only the individual roses themselves but also the way the collection is organized and laid out.

This past week, at an event hosted by Sarah Owens, rosarian and rose curator at the Cranford, I savored the fragrance of roses and the flavor of wine in a way that was quite unlike anything I've ever experienced before.

Flavor and fragrance are related in a complex partnership -- the senses of taste and smell are locked together in our brains as two key elements in experiencing flavor.  They are neurologically distinct yet curiously interdependent; it's difficult to experience one without the other. Think back to your last nasty head cold with a stuffy nose; you'll probably recall that things didn't have much taste either.

In an evening lecture that combined a walk through the rose garden with wine tasting, Ms. Owens challenged the attendees to concentrate on the fragrance and to try to discern the different fragrance notes in the perfume of a given rose, and then to likewise focus on the experience of taste and in so doing, try to identify distinct flavor notes in the wines she chose for us to try.

As we walked through the garden, we came upon small linen draped tables set with bottles of wine and wine glasses, each having been placed next to a specific rose.

Ms. Owens provided lively, interesting commentary on the history and characteristics of the roses she had chosen to feature, the origin and background of each of the wines she had paired with each rose, and then guided us to use our senses to identify the specific fragrance and flavor notes she spotlighted at each stop along the way.   It was a feast for the senses.

Sampling table next to Abraham Darby

The pairing I enjoyed the most was the first one she demonstrated: a climbing Cecile Brunner, one of my favorite antique roses, and Moscato d'Asti wine. She has made me a Moscato fan for life.

It's small wonder this one drew me in right out of the gate. I have always been particularly fond of the musky, fruity fragrance of Cecile Brunner, a delicate departure from the more modern "rose" fragrance, with a mossy note underlying it all.

And Moscato d'Asti is a fruity dessert wine made from the same grapes as Asti Spumante, a close cousin that is produced in the same area of Italy from the same grapes. And Asti just happens to be my favorite sparkling wine.

Another pairing that was a true palate pleaser involved another fragrant antique rose, an unidentified "mystery" Rosa damascene, or damask rose. Some of the most fragrant heirloom roses, the damasks rank near the top of the list of my favorite roses.  Comte de Chambord reigns supreme as my personal favorite of all the damasks.

She introduced us to a rose that was recovered from a private homestead and currently remains unidentified although it is clearly a damask based on form, flower structure, growth habit, and fragrance. She paired it with Gessami Gramona blanco.a delicately flavorful white wine that hails from the Penedes region of northeast Spain. The flavor of apricot and pear with a touch of citrus were a lovely representation of the fragrance notes in the rose, and left me wondering, how on earth did she do this - match the specific fragrances and flavors so perfectly?

Now I should tell you that I know very little about wine. I am not a connoisseur (heck, without a spellchecker, I couldn't spell it), and I have some impairment of my sense of taste. But this lecture opened doors for me in that for the first time ever, I fully appreciated the very real difference between passively tasting what you place in your mouth and actively tasting and savoring, something that requires concentration to experience the sense of taste both physically and intellectually.

The same is true for fragrance. We have well over 180 roses (the "official" count will come later in the season) in our gardens and I am smelling roses all the time.  And yes, there are some roses I can identify instantly by their unique fragrance.  But while I may notice differences in fragrance, may even recognize a scant few with my eyes closed, I can't honestly say that I ever tried to dissect down to individual notes the subtleties of those differences in quite the way that I experienced in this exercise.  But when I did, my appreciation and enjoyment of the fragrance increased tenfold.

Probably the pairing that enabled me to experience that phenomenon most dramatically was with Hugh Dickson, a gorgeous hybrid perpetual with enormous, fragrant scarlet blooms, and Chateau Pesquie Viognier, a deliciously fruity wine, not as light as the Moscato and with a more intense flavor that evoked the flavors of mango and peaches.

In fact, she cut a mango and we experienced the fragrance of fresh mango along with the fragrance of the rose as we tasted the wine. 

What I found truly fascinating was that it was much easier to discern the flavor note in the wine when we were concomitantly enjoying the fragrance of the mango. You've heard the expression " tastes as good as it smells..." -- it was an olfactory sleight of hand that really brought home how closely allied fragrance and flavor truly are.

Whether it was design genius or pure serendipity, the rose climbing the trellis behind Hugh Dickson is Autumn Sunset, a spectacular deep apricot rose introduced by Mike Lowe in 1986. 

I knew Mike well, as I formerly worked with his wife Irene, and all of the roses in my original rose garden in Nashua came from Mike. I remember his pride at introducing the very first climber in this stunning color.

As Sarah let us discover for ourselves during this exercise, what makes the growing of these two roses in close proximity so interesting is that based solely on color, the  fragrance of Autumn Sunset is something I would expect in a rose the color of Hugh Dickson.  And the converse is also true: the mango, peachy fruity fragrance of Hugh Dickson is something I would readily associate with a rose the color of Autumn Sunset.  Both paired exceedingly well with the wine she chose.

For the final sampling of the evening, she chose yet another of my favorite roses, a David Austin English rose, Abraham Darby, and the one red wine of the evening, Heitz Cellar's Grignolino.

The Grignolino, although a bit too dry for my uncultured palate, is known for its strawberry flavor and citrus after-note, and she had planned to let us sample strawberries as well as oranges at this pairing.

Unfortunately, somewhere between the time she set them out and the time we arrived at the final tasting table, either a hungry art student, staff member, or perhaps the fauna that resides in the garden made off with the fruit.

She was bemused to say the least when she went to reach for a berry and found only the empty bowl and we all had a chuckle over the missing fruit.

It was a delight meeting Sarah, who Steve and I originally came to know through correspondence over the last year. 

The evening was as enjoyable as it was educational, and it's an exercise that I can't wait to try in our own garden.


  1. What an interesting experience! Love that you gave us specific examples. This would be a fun thing to try.

  2. Your evening sounds like so much fun. What a creative person Ms. Owen must be. I think I need to go to the rose garden at the Morris Arboretum for a fix.

  3. Wine and roses. How delicious! A great idea. Thanks for faving me! I am following your blog and enjoying your lovely posts.

  4. What a fabulous evening...I love the unique but very entertaining and educational...wonderful

  5. Thank you for a lovely post! I love both roses and wine :), but i have never heard about them being paired.

  6. Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful comments! It was a truly delightful evening, and I enjoyed it immensely. We are going to do something similar with fruits, wine and roses when the New England Rose Society meets here in August.

  7. This sounds like so much fun! What a wonderful way to heighten appreciation for both roses and wine. I think we're all aware of the link between smell and taste but normally we think of that link in negative terms - that is, if we can't smell (from a cold for instance) nothing tastes good. But I like the idea of looking at it in this delightfully positive way - enhancing both senses!

  8. What a fabulous evening! I love roses and am so glad they are well and truly back in popularity. I remember when nobody wanted to grow roses. However, they must have a fragrance, what is the point of a rose without the perfume. You sound as though you had a brilliant time.

  9. Very educational for those of us who just enjoy the fragrance of our garden roses on the air and rarely enjoy a glass of wine.

  10. I have to confess, I like wines that are fruity and light and don't taste like.... umm..... wine. In fact, both of my favorites are sold at Wal-Mart and have screw-on tops, not corks LOL. If you were grading my taste in wine, I'd come out dead last in the class LOL.

    But this was truly an educational event and I learned a lot - a lot about appreciating the fragrance of roses, too. And I actually really enjoyed two of the wines and even those I didn't enjoy, and wouldn't ask for a second glass, I could taste the flavors she wanted us to be able to recognize.

    Now that our roses are blooming much more enthusiastically, I am sniffing them with a whole new focus. It was a truly enlightening evening!

  11. Wow what a consciousness-raising piece! Loved it. And Cecile Brunner with an asti, yes...
    I currently have a Cecile B in a pot, raised from a cutting (the rose not the pot), and I couldn't decide where to plant it. The great photo of the canes spilling over a fence cleared that up, thank you. Oh, and I must confess, I ate the strawberries. Sorry.

  12. Oh gosh, I won't tell! Yes, Cecile B loves a fence or trellis. I'm wishing I had a fence as low as they do for her - it would make it easier to enjoy the fragrance. It's subtle, but so lovely! And yes, absolute perfection with asti...


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