Tasting Terminology 1
By FBWorld Team
a wine writer says that a Zinfandel smells like wild strawberries,
some people might assume that the winemaker put actual wild
strawberries into the fermentation tank.
who have been reading wine columns for years know this is silly,
but just exactly where does the phrase "wild strawberries"
come from? Is it part of some whimsical patois known only to
wine experts? Or is it merely hyperbole?
terminology of tasting can be obscure, obtuse, and even mystifyingly
absurd. And it may have absolutely nothing to do what's actually
in the wine. We always hope such terminology is close enough
to the actual.
Those of us who are responsible for writing such nonsense can,
I admit, get carried away with our own omniscience in regard
to the use of language. Almost to the point or complete absurdity.
late Legh Knowles of Beaulieu Vineyard once commissioned an
advertisement to point up the vagueness of our language as it
relates to what he called the "Prismatic Luminescence School"
of tasting notes. He created an ad for BV wines that asked,
facetiously, "Does your wine have prismatic luminescence?"
implication, of course, was that a wine that had this amorphous
trait was good and a wine that did not was not good. It was
as simple as that. (Knowles was clearly exasperated by all of
era preceded by a decade the use (ludicrous as it may well have
been) of numbers to identify the quality of a wine. Curiously,
at one time during this last several-decade-long epoch, we saw
a score of 91 move from something devoutly to be wished to a
reflection of a completely mediocre product!
is, 91 was once considered to be a high score. That was about
1984 (thank you, George Orwell!). However, by 2010, 93 had become
a low score. If, somehow, you can explain this to me, please
call as soon as possible because I am still totally mystified.
greatest purveyors of the scoring schema have suggested that
the numbers, in and of themselves, have little meaning without
the "rest of the story," which are the tasting notes
themselves. They implored us to read the tasting notes carefully.
I have never used numbers to describe a wine (I was a mathematics
major in college and tend to use numbers far more precisely
than randomly placing them on an amorphous and ever-changing
liquid), words are my only refuge.
so, to me, words count for an awful lot more. So I read tasting
notes.But often they are as meaningless as are the numbers.
To make them more specific requires using specific terms, not
mere hyperbole. We must distinctive-ize the words, so raspberry
and strawberry define different elements of the same "berry-ness,"
but one is not really close to the other.
so-called "tasting notes" includes such subjective
comments as "hedonistic," or "gorgeous,"
or "mind-blowing," the notes are no longer specific
to the wine. They are then about individualistic observations
that have nothing to do with the wine. They have to do with
Truly meaningful tasting notes relate to elements that are in
the wine, as imprecise as these things are. I have categorized
these elements as objectively as I can:
these terms relate to actual fruit, whether peach, tomato, berries,
citrus, or other aromatics that come from things that grow.
Terms in this category eminate from things that may be related
to dirt, dried fruit elements they have lost their "fruitiness,"
and otherwise might be considered related more to dried herbs
such as tea, olives, tree bark, and what scientists call thiols.
See next article in the series.
Here terms relate to extraneous elements such as honey, wet
concrete (in the mixer), tree leaves, vegetables such as spinach,
kale, and cilantro, and other elements such as white paste,
old cigar box, leather, sweaty saddle...
These are terms that have no particular relationship to grapes,
but probably came from the oak barrels in which the wine was
aged. (Barrels usually are toasted, so their interiors pick
up a bit of smoke.)
Aromas: Elements that come out of the fermenter, such
as volatile acidity (similar to violets), esters, aromas related
to different clones of the same grape variety.
of these terms have a way of co-mingling to provide slightly
different characteristics that may be seen as one thing to one
person and another thing to other people.
wines are single-dimensional with only one or two noticeable
scents, and others are multifaceted.
tasting notes can change in the same class from minute to minute.
Wine is a living beverage, and swirling normally improves the
intensity of the aromatic. And the taste of the wine changes
over a period of time as well as its various constituents are
affected positively or negatively by the amount of the aeration
the wine receives.
There is a science to this. Machines have been developed to
analyze what kind of aromatics a wine delivers immediately after
the cork is pulled, and then later after it has been open.
element often found in wines sealed with a cork can be identified
by a gas chromatograph as 2-4-6-trichloroanisole. This is commonly
called cork taint, and machines can detect it in a few parts
per trillion. Good tasters can detect it in concentrations as
small as 3 ppt!
some people find a particular characteristic (such as amyl acetate,
the smell of a banana) to be a positive in some wines (say in
Pinot Gris), and the same exact characteristic might seem completely
negative in a different wine (in say Cabernet Sauvignon).
aromas are learned experiences. To many novice tasters the banana-y
smell in a white wine (amyl acetate) can be an attractive element
of complexity, but for someone who has worked with a variety
of solvents, the same exact smell can be off-putting. Amyl acetate
is found in several solvents. This is much the same way that
some people love the smell of cilantro while others equate it
with laundry detergent and cannot abide it.
main attributes of each particular grape varietal once was regarded
as somewhat immutabl because winemakers loved the basic elements
and did not attempt to avoid them in grapes that were allowed
to mature on the vine to natural ripeness.
after World War II, winemakers became convinced they could alter
how wines came out by simply altering the harvest date(s), and
as time went by, the typical varietal characteristics of each
great variety meant less and less, and the ability to sell wine
became greater and greater.
Thus were consumers educated to prefer a particular style of
red wine, and in most cases the actual varietal characteristics
became far less important.
our next article the endemic varietal characteristics will be
mentioned almost as an academic afterthought since they do not
come into play and many wine regions of the world, in particular
as these grapes adapt to warmer and warmer vineyards add later
and later harvesting.
of this sad fact of life, I have decided not to focus on individual
varietal characteristics, but on the five separate categories
listed above in this article that I have identified as representing
most of the terms we use to describe wine.
By Dan Berger