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March 20, 2011

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Let your senses grow

IMAGINE a garden where melon, peach, apple, lemon, pear and gardenias bloom. Then imagine holding all that in a glass.

That's the theory behind wine sensory gardens, featuring plants commonly smelled and tasted in wine.

Take a stroll through the neatly laid out cabernet-merlot corner of the red wine garden at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center in Sonoma County, California, and you encounter things you expect to find, such as black cherry and black currant. And there are a few you might not expect, such as oregano and bell pepper, which also can be picked up in some reds.

It's a wine and noses experience.

"We call this our scratch-and-sniff garden," says Matthew Lowe, a chef at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates who has been involved with the gardens for a decade.

In each garden there are four quadrants representing different wines, and in the middle of the garden is a section of things that pair well with wines, for example sweet onions and peppers with Sauvignon Blanc.

Self-guided tours are always available and there are guided tours three times a day during the summer.

The idea is to correlate the scent of a flower or tang of a berry with what you experience in the tasting room.

"You can come out to the pinot garden, you can grab a strawberry, you can grab a cherry from the tree, you can grab a blackberry or a blueberry and taste it to remind your palate about what you're smelling in that glass of wine," says Lowe.

Got a green thumb? This is also something you can try at home, says Katrina Frey of Frey Vineyards in Mendocino County.

Frey Vineyards was a pioneer as a purely organic winery, and the family planted sensory gardens "because we are a bunch of gardeners who also happen to make wine," says Frey. "Gardening is our relaxation and hobby. And it brings beneficial insects into our vineyards, and so it helps with our natural control of pests."

What type of aromatics you plant will depend on your climate; some common flavors in red wine are raspberries, strawberries, black cherries and blackberries. For white wines, citrus and apples are common, along with mint and jasmine. Herbs are hardy and a good place to start. They don't take up a lot of room.

"In our garden, we have a section of herbs that we think go well with white wines, and these are lemon thyme, tarragon, basil, dill, cilantro and lovage," says Frey.

Colorful choices

Another idea is to go chromatic. For a white wine garden, you might look for plants with gold or yellow leaves; for red wine, plants with dark red leaves.

At Round Pond Estate in the Napa Valley, sensory gardens are curated by Jeff Dawson, who came up with the idea some years ago after encountering the "Aroma Wheel" developed by Ann Noble, a University of California, Davis, professor. It identifies aromas in wine.

Dawson helped get the gardens at Kendall-Jackson going, and six years ago moved to Round Pond, which has two gardens: Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon - the two major varietals grown there.

Plantings include things referred to when describing wine, such as grapefruit, lemon, lime nectarine and melon for Sauvignon Blanc. In the "affinities" section, there are plants such as peach and lavender, as well as a "color-pairing" concept in which Sauvignon Blanc is matched with lighter-colored vegetables such as yellow tomatoes and yellow zucchini, while cabernet is paired with red tomatoes.

It's a pick-and-sip opportunity. The best way to experience the garden is to walk around and take in the aromas and flavors, then take something like a strip of bell pepper back to the tasting room to see what works with which wines, says Dawson.

"When you have that sensory experience, that's the most profound effect in terms of relating it to what you might cook for dinner that night, or looking at what you're cooking for dinner and deciding what wine you might buy," he says. "The light comes on."


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