A matter of taste slightly — and briefly — altered


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It seems odd to be writing about COVID in a drinks column in 2023 — not because COVID has come and gone, but more that it’s old news for most.

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It seems odd to be writing about COVID in a drinks column in 2023 — not because COVID has come and gone, but more that it’s old news for most.

Most, that is, except for me, who after three careful years of avoiding the coronavirus — despite living with teenagers and having flown internationally on four separate occasions in the last 12 months — tested positive for COVID for the first time last week. (Hence the absence of Uncorked last weekend.)

Save your well wishes, dear readers — my unfashionably late bout with COVID has thankfully concluded. And while it felt like I had been hit by a truck during the first couple days of the illness, there was one telltale symptom I managed to avoid — losing my sense of taste or smell. (My 13-year-old son’s newfound foray into cologne twigged me to the fact that yes, I could quite certainly still smell things.)

As someone who regularly puts nose and mouth to work smelling and tasting wine and other drinks, the loss of taste and smell was certainly a concern (albeit minor) about catching COVID. Fellow wine/drinks professionals I’ve spoken with have detailed the days, weeks or sometimes months they had to wait for their senses of smell and taste to return to normal — if they ever did at all.

My curiosity about how my ability to taste and smell would be impacted was too much to resist, so between binge-watching Second World War documentaries and guzzling water, tea and soup, I’d sample small sips of boozy drinks daily, just to see how my senses had changed.

Before testing positive, I had opened a not-too-shabby, modestly oaked South African Chardonnay. When I tasted it after testing positive, I found the fresh fruit flavours it once delivered had disappeared — instead it was dominated by vanilla and caramel flavours from a portion of the wine being aged in oak barrels during production.

A bottle of red wine I had open pre-COVID — an Italian blend — fared even worse. All the fruit aromas and flavours in the red had completely vanished, replaced instead by ashen, tarry and woody notes that jacked up the tannins, making my teeth and gums feel bone dry. I had some leftover Malbec samples from a stunning virtual tasting I had done with Catena Zapata the week before, and they were similarly (and tragically) devoid of all fruit flavours as well.

One big drawback of catching COVID when I did was being forced to miss the Winnipeg Whisky Festival. Feeling sorry for myself, I poured a small dram of Irish whiskey one night last week and was disappointed to find it smelled like a butterscotch candy (think Werther’s), the flavours quite muddled.

Perhaps because of the lack of oak aging, the boozy beverage that fared best was beer. The flavours in a pilsner I tried didn’t seem as though they had changed very much; it was more like they were muted, almost akin to a de-alcoholized brew. I suspect the bitterness of a hoppier beer (an IPA or the like) would have tasted worse.

Another curveball thrown into my COVID tasting conundrum came via the Paxlovid I took to help alleviate symptoms. One of the side-effects of the drug, according to the directions, is an altered sense of taste, which I experienced in spades. Imagine walking around for five days with a bitter, metallic taste in your mouth — like touching your tongue against a nine-volt battery. Not pleasant.

Once I tested negative on Monday (March 6), I picked up a couple of easy-going, fruity wines and a crisp, fresh ale to ease my way back into the swing of things (see tasting notes). I’m pleased to report my senses of taste and smell (and my health overall) seem to have returned to normal — at least until COVID once again rears its palate-punishing head.


Twitter: @bensigurdson


Drinks of the week

Trans Canada Brewing Co. Mountaineer Cold IPA (Winnipeg — $4.24/473 ml can, brewery, Liquor Marts, beer vendors)

Pale gold in colour and clear, this IPA features Citra and Talus hops, and aromatically delivers grapefruit, herbal, pine and subtle malt notes. It’s light-bodied and dry, with loads of citrus, pine and resinous notes showing well along with subtle malt, moderate bitterness and a crisp, clean but lengthy finish (it’s a robust 6.8 per cent alcohol). Very nicely done. 4/5

Torres 2021 Sangre de Toro white (Rueda, Spain — $12.87, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Made from the Verdejo grape, I first took the 2020 vintage of this Spanish white for a test drive in late 2022. This newer vintage is pale straw in colour and aromatically offers subtle red apple, lemon, pear and floral notes on the nose. It’s light-bodied and dry, with fresh crunchy apple and ripe lemon flavours front and centre, with very modest acidity and a chalky note on the finish. Could use a touch more zip, but it’s decent for the price — especially as it’s just $12.87 (regular $16.99) until the end of March. 3/5

Wolf Blass Makers’ Project 2020 Shiraz (McLaren Vale/Grampians, Australia — $20.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Some of the grapes on this Aussie red were made using whole berry fermentation, which adds extra depth and concentration to the fruit flavours. Aromatically it brings big deep black cherry, raspberry, plum, blackberry and a hint of dark chocolate. It’s full-bodied and dry but juicy, with loads of red and dark berry flavours showing well, modest tannins and acidity and a slightly warm finish (it’s 14 per cent alcohol). Deliciously drinkable now, especially with about 15 minutes in the fridge to add a light chill. 4/5

Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

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