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Hot, backward, chewy, funky, woody, flabby, awkward, fat… Are we talking about wine?
Appreciating the wine you taste is only the beginning. Being able to communicate your impressions to others in words is just as big a challenge too. Spoken accounts are the only way to preserve the pleasure wine provides. However, when you hear those strange terms tossed around and you don't know anything about them, you can feel lost and the people using them may sound more than a bit lofty. To help you on your way to becoming a wine connoisseur, or at least sounding like one, see our glossary of wine tasting terminology.
For a novice trying to describe a wine, it's also easy to poke fun at our sometimes weak attempts to put wine into words. Possibly the most recognized satire on tasting notes is a James Thurber cartoon: Three people at a dinner table look quizzically at their host, who has a glass in his hand and a manic look in his eye, saying, "It's merely a naive domestic Burgundy, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption."
The effort to develop a clear and coherent vocabulary for wine tasting has been going on for centuries. Take the distinctive flavor of coriander leaves. No matter how hard someone tries to describe it, it's difficult to put together words that allow you to imagine the taste. Flavor seems to operate at a very different level in that when we are given a description, we can't envision it in our mind in such a way that we can relish or appreciate the flavor, no matter how good the description is.
The French, to no one's surprise, leans toward the poetic. Peynaud the French enologist, said "There are hundreds of … possible images, depending on the poetic ability of the taster". He also says "There are circumstances where a little fantasy is appropriate". He followed his fantasy statement with "Do not over do it". In his landmark study, The Taste of Wine, Peynaud traced the slow accumulation of terms commonly used to describe fine wines which have become standards in the field of winemaking and wine appreciation.
Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about wine, and even in the 15th century there are references to wines called "good, clean, honest and commercial." But the true taster's vocabulary really began in the 18th century, when Bordeaux wines such as Haut-Brion and Lafite began to be sold at four to five times the price of ordinary claret, and it became necessary to find words to describe and justify the difference.
Based on extensive research in the literature of wine, Peynaud culled about 40 terms used in the late 18th century, ranging from "acrid," "sour" and "hot," to "lively," "fine" and "strong." More exacting flavor descriptors appear in the 19th century, such as "balsamic," "herbal" and "woody." A manual for wine merchants published in 1896 used nearly 200 different descriptors, and Peynaud recognized over a thousand terms frequently used to describe wines. In fact, the vocabulary has gotten insurmountable; in "Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation," Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler list over 300 terms to steer clear of in wine description, including the innocuous "charming" and "intense" and even the antique "lively."
Here are a few recent tasting notes from a well-known taster for three wines, all Chardonnays, that widely vary in quality and character. By "deconstructing" them, we hope to assist you in increasing your own vocabulary for recounting the wines you taste.
Genuine passion for the taste and quality in the wine is expressed in this note with such positive words as "bold," "beautifully crafted" and "delicious." The wine is clearly full-bodied, and all the fruit descriptors point out that it was made from very ripe grapes: Undeveloped Chardonnay tends to taste of green apples or citrus fruits. The "smoky, toasty" flavors are characteristic results of fermentation and aging in new French oak, an expensive technique generally reserved for top wines, usually reflected in higher price tags. Despite the rich flavors, expert wine making has achieved a compatible whole, and this Chardonnay shows the ultimate badge of high quality with a long, complex finish. The note doesn't indicate when to drink the wine, but it sure makes it sounds irresistible.
Chardonnay South Australia 1995 (87, $11)
This Chardonnay offers quality and is devoid of faults. Australia is known for a full-bodied, ripe approach to winemaking, and that tradition is reflected in this wine's "supple" texture, "generous" fruit flavors and "hint of honey," which all represent fully ripe grapes. Yet the adjectives "bright" and "peach" imply some refreshing tartness, so it avoids fatness or dullness. Because there are no descriptors for oak, it may be that new oak wasn't used during vinification. At minimum, it doesn't make a solid impression, so wine drinkers who seek those flavors may want to pass. On the whole, the note is positive without being adamant; you'll enjoy this wine, especially given the reasonable price, but you probably won't remember it for the rest of your life
Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 1994 (75, $45)
Chablis is the northern most wine region of Burgundy, France. The white wine is made from Chardonnay grapes. The vineyards are divided into three quality levels, with grand cru the best. The 1994 vintage was quite successful in Chablis, which makes this wine especially disappointing. This may be good enough in an inexpensive quaffing wine, but not one selling for $45. The tasting note makes this Vaudésir sound practically like a impersonator of a great wine. Rather than being complex, it's "fat" and instead of being well crafted, it's "overdone." Even the color is off. Chablis is usually a keen green-gold, but this one is an faulty "yellow." In addition, while not even 2 years old, it's already "quite mature," lacking life and acidity, a high alert to wine drinkers who expect top white Burgundies to get better after years in the cellar. Even the short, choppy style of the note should caution readers who may be impressed by the prestigious label.
Develop your own wine vocabulary.
The best way to develop your own wine vocabulary is to write your own tasting notes. But first , taste and smell as many things as you can. Get out the spice rack. Sniff the fruit and vegetable section. Think about what you taste and smell. Second, no matter how inadequate you feel, try to write down descriptions of the wine you taste. Read other people's tasting notes of the same wines if you can. After a while you'll begin to find that you have your own vocabulary for wine tasting, which will help you develop your skills as a taster.
Soon you'll find that certain words recur as descriptors of similar wines and before long you'll be fluently describing your organoleptic sensations. Of course, the bottom line of tasting is your own pleasure. Your description should reflect your own judgment. In the end it's only your opinion that counts. There's something disconcertingly recognizable in one of the earliest known tasting notes, found in a third century document from Roman Egypt: "The wine taster has declared the Euboean wine to be unsuitable." We hope few, or none, of your wine-tasting experiences fall into the same dreary category.
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