Scents And Nonsense – Wine Tasting

It may seem snotty, but that winespeak has some use

Mnay years ago, sitting in for the first time with a group of practiced wine tasters, I was astonished to hear them describing fine wines as smelling like wet dog, nail-polish remover and sweaty socks. My writer’s mind immediately snapped to attention. I can do this, too, I thought. “Well, I get old running shoe,” I blurted, “with a bit of raw baloney and whiteout fluid!”

That’s when I discovered there were actually rules to this game. Nail-polish remover is a recognized wine term; baloney is not.

A tasting note from a label for a 2011 Special Reserve reads, “Complex floral and cocoa aroma. Vibrant acidity mingles with lavender and spice flavors, finishing on a note of currant and blackberry.”

Such exuberant prose is the bricks and mortar of most wine writing. Apart from scores given by the big wine publications, and medals won in various competitions, the consumer has no wine metrics to use when trying to find a decent bottle of something new and different. In theory, tasting notes are supposed to fill that gap.

Most fail miserably, I’m afraid. If you take a close reading of the description of the Special Reserve, what does it really tell you? Are we talking about a cabernet or a Zinfandel, a Viognier or a Chenin blanc? In fact, none of the above. The quote is from an ad for Starbucks Special Reserve coffee!

Such confusion led to the creation of Ann Noble’s aroma wheel more than 20 years ago. Noble developed it while teaching in the viticulture and enology department at the University of California, Davis. Her goal was to take the vagueness out of wine writing, and to plug in a range of meaningful terms that specifically relate to the chemical composition of wine.

Along with the wheel came instructions for concocting a series of “standards” in order to train the nose to identify key fragrances, both good and bad, commonly found in wine. She called it “kindergarten for the nose.”

Briefly stated, the aroma wheel is divided into three rings. On the inner ring are the 12 basic words that Noble prefers for characterizing the overall aroma of a given wine: fruity, vegetative, nutty, caramel, woody, earthy, chemical, pungent, oxidized, microbiological, floral and spicy. In the middle and outer rings, these terms are subdivided and elaborated upon.

For example, beginning with a wine that is fruity (such as Riesling), the next ring asks you to further define it as citrus, berry, tree fruit, tropical fruit, dried fruit or other. The third ring gets into the nitty-gritty, listing specific fruits and vegetables, nuts and flowers, and such oddities as yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kerosene, wet dog, and skunk.

So why bother studying winespeak? Why not just stick with “I like it” or “I don’t”?

Well, for starters, putting words to wine, as in any other attempt to verbalize a complex sensory experience, helps you focus on, absorb, understand and retain that experience. A basic grasp of wine terms also helps dispel some odd myths, such as the confusion surrounding descriptions on wine labels. I’ve had more than one friend ask, in all seriousness, why wineries added grapefruit to their gewürztraminer and raspberries to their zinfandels. The fact that these were simply descriptive terms was not evident. Dry and crispy whites go fine with oysters, whites go fine with oysters.

I’ve written the accompanying glossary to give you a handle on some basic wine descriptors. Beyond that, the advice from here is to drink locally, speak metaphorically. A story is told about the composer Johannes Brahms. Invited to dinner at the home of a noted wine connoisseur, Brahms was fussed over and plied with a particularly ancient bottle of claret. “This is the Brahms of my cellar,” his host announced with great fanfare. After an anxious pause, Brahms was asked to comment. His reply: “Better bring out your Beethoven.”