Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Taste of Pencil

A few weeks ago, Pencil Talk put up a posting on the Mitsubishi Pure Malt leadholder. The main body of this pencil is wooden, wood from retired whisky casks to be precise, although apparently any whiff of the fine liquid is long gone, although who knows what you might taste if you chewed on your pencil.

Well it got me thinking, what about that other drink that the enthusiasts rave about and ascribe seemingly limitless tastes too? Yes indeed, a quick online search revealed there are plenty of wines described as having the taste or aroma of, having hints of, being reminiscent of, “pencils”, “pencil shavings”, “pencil lead”, “old pencil boxes”, and so. I’ve been known to swig a glass or two, so the challenge was set.

Unfortunately the reviews of the pencil wines were all ones that were not readily available here in my country, but reading the reviews it was obvious that any wine that had been matured in oak barrels was likely to be described by somebody as pencilish. So, I have been research drinking for several weeks now, an arduous task with very little reward. Pure research in the name of science can often be a thankless task.

My recycling wheelie bin is full of evidence.My cellar is full of holes. But still, the taste of pencil eluded me. Today, in a final effort, I journeyed to a winery, to sit in their fine restaurant, eat their Moroccan Spiced Lamb with aubergine and nasturtium pesto, and begin the final research session.Oak, yes, Smokey Wood, yes, Wood, yes, but Pencil, no. Not even a glass of their finest red, “The Epihany” could produce "Yes – Pencil !". Time to give up. Oh, well, I’m sure the fault is really mine, uneducated taste buds unable to distinguish French Oak from California Incense Cedar. Printed on the wine list - “If God forbade drinking, would he have made wine so good?” – Cardinal Richelieu.

Hmmm, maybe I should have tried chewing on the wine barrel out in the carpark?But hey, before lunch we went to the local farmers market, and I bought a sampler pack from the local brewery. Maybe with that name, their beer will taste of cedar and pencils?


Germ said...

I feel for you. All that hard work, drinking wine......... such a shame. but, you must persevere....


Kiwi-d said...

I've been thinking ...(always a dangerous start)...but as a small child at school I wasn't a pencil maybe the wine revieweres who describe pencil tastes to wine, well maybe they were pencil chewers and are thus connoisseurs of the wood :-)

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of wine in the world - so carry on with the research. It may have to become a long term study.

There is at least one pen made from wine (Krug Champagne, no less) casks. I would similarly doubt that the pen retains a wine aroma.

Unknown said...

Stephen: Omas released pens made from Chateau Lafite Rothschild casks last year and my guess is that they'll offer others if the demand is there. If someone can afford a $1000-3000 bottle of wine then they can afford a $1000 fountain pen.

Dave: There's a good reason why a lot of wines have been described as having a "hint of pencil lead". The oak barrels used for wine are toasted with an open fire during their manufacture. For red wines, the barrels are given a "medium" or "heavy" toast. White wines rarely (if ever) get much more than a "light" toast. The heavier toastings essentially char the inside. What do you get when you char vegetable matter? Charcoal (which is almost all carbon with some impurities). Certainly, you won't get a cedar flavour so it comes down to the lead and not the wood which is what people are really describing.

Regular pencil lead is made of graphite and clay. I have about 45 or so leads for Yard-O-Led pencils which I believe are made from graphite and clay and not graphite and polymer. I took all of that lead and stuck it in airtight container overnight and then opened it up. I certainly smelled pencil lead. Whether I am smelling the graphite or the clay, I can't be 100% certain because I don't know what kind of clay is being used and how odorous it is.

I never chewed pencils when I was a child but I did sharpen a lot of them. There was definitely a smell (beyond the wood) that was similar the Yard-O-Led lead smell. The most used kinds of drawing charcoal are vine charcoal which has no binder and compressed charcoal which is charcoal powder bound with a gum binder. To my nose, charcoal has almost the same smell as traditional pencil lead.

As an aside, for white wines, the level of the lighter toasting determines the amount of "oak" flavour a white wine receives. Also white wines are typically put into newer barrels while red wines use much older barrels which impart much less oak flavour. Older barrels impart more complexity into the wines. That's why some white wine makers particularly in France (such as Krug) use older barrels during at least part of the fermentation for their whites and it shows in the complexity of their whites.

(A co-worker once asked me "Is there anything you don't know?" to which I replied "I don't know why I'm still at this company." LOL)

Unknown said...

I forgot something (which is surprising given the length of my last post).

Most red wines are bottled only after a few years in the cask. The better ones are bottled typically after 5 years. The more time in the cask, the more likely the pencil flavour/aroma will be present and really it's only a "hint" and not like a mouth full of pencil lead

Kiwi-d said...

Hi Wilson
Well plenty of good info as always. Perhaps then your personal blog is ?

Unknown said...

Dave: LOL. Funny thing is that my family never owned a set. I know so very little that it's disheartening. I have almost no time or desire for blogging. I only write a lot here because it's only one of two blogs that I read on a daily basis and there's always something interesting to talk about here.

Kiwi-d said...

OK, well I'll take the "only one of two blogs" as a compliment and quit while I'm ahead :-)

I can however update the beer tasting. Despite being produced in a former sawmill, I can detect no extra taint of wood or pencil in their pilsner, India pale ale or wheat beer. However, their porter still remains, and thats probably got some hint of smoke or charcoal or something. Problem is, I'm not usually a porter type, still in the name of science I must forge ahead.