WineInk: Finding the right words to describe wine
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Admit it. The most intimidating thing about wine is talking about it. Well, maybe other than the price.
We all feel like we are at a loss for words sometimes when it comes to describing what a wine smells or tastes like. And that can make the process of enjoying a glass of wine somehow less about what is in the glass and more about feeling inadequate about our ability to discuss it. That’s a bummer.
It’s kind of like going to a cricket match and not knowing the rules as the crowd goes crazy for a wicket, or sitting down with a 12-year-old and talking about social media. It’s hard to articulate something when you feel ignorant about it.
But the difference with wine is that you do know something. If you can get over your trepidation and pay an ounce of attention you’ll realize rather quickly that, by simply calling on language you use every day, you can not only have a reasonable conversation about wine, you can actually enjoy yourself in the process. Intimidation can turn to education before you even take a sip.
Start by looking into the glass that sits in front of you. What color is the wine? If it’s red or white, note that. You have just identified the single most important thing that one can say about a wine. Tip the glass and take a second look. What shade of color is the wine? Is it opaque? Can you see through the red in the glass and read a wine column below? Or is it dense and dark? If the wine is white, is it really white or is it tinged a greenish color, or perhaps golden?
Note what you see and describe it like it is. “That red wine that is almost purple, must be a big California cabernet or maybe a syrah. Too dark for a pinot,” you might relay. Or, “That wine is the color of straw — maybe it’s a white Burgundy.” See, now you’re talking the talk with just a quick glance.
That may seem pretty basic, and it is. But the key is that you have turned concerns about what you don’t know into words about what you do know. The next step is to smell the aromas of a wine and to stay within your comfort zone. If you smell flowers and grass in that greenish wine, say so. If the fruit smells like lemon or citrus or the grapefruit that you had for breakfast, then that is your descriptor. The word that works for you to indicate what you smell is the best word you can use.
The same is true when you taste the wine. We eat stuff everyday and we can identify tastes and textures pretty easily. You know what a blackberry tastes like as opposed to a prune, right? You can taste vanilla or cocoa and tell the differences, right? And who doesn’t know the taste (and the smell) of bacon? If you get any hints of those flavors when you taste a glass of wine, simply say it aloud. Is the wine thin on your tongue like water or does it linger and coat your mouth like a syrup? Again, take note and comment on what the wine feels like to you.
What you’ll discover is that you do have an appropriate vocabulary to talk about wine. And the more you do it, the easier it will become. Your breadth of wine knowledge will increase with each glass.
Like cricket, social media and yes, love, the world of wine does have its own lexicon. There is an entire language used to talk about what goes on in the vineyards (verasion), in the winemaking process (malolactic fermentation), and the various attributes of wine in a glass (typicity). But, like any other language, it is used by those who need to reach deeper levels of definition about elements of wine to communicate. And even some of those words are fraught with ambiguous meaning.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague, one of my favorite wine scribes, penned a 1,500-word or so column about what the word “dry” means when talking about a wine. Three letters is all the word has and it provided a perfect palette for Teague to paint a picture of how subjective wine words can be.
In its most direct definition a “dry” wine is one that is devoid of sweetness. There are even technical standards that exist indicating exactly how few grams of “sugar per liter” are allowed to be designated as dry. But as Lettie pointed out, different people, with different palates, often use the word differently. To each his own.
She closed by using a quote from New Zealand’s most famous winemaker: “At the end of day,” Kevin Judd said, “it’s all about balance.” A word we all know.