I love reading wine reviews. While some wine critics write well – and I enjoy reading inspiring and lyrical prose- the affectations of others and their utter nonsense make me hoot with laughter. So I’m happy either way. Witness the story (told by wine critic Jonathan Meades) of an American nouveau-wine connaisseur who was visiting the home of a great viticulturalist. She tasted the wine offered, gargled, lip-smacked, parked her nose in a glass of her host’s finest recent vintage. Coming up for breath she gasped: “Raspberries . . . myrtles . . . heather . . . honeysuckle . . . I’m getting melons, with marram grass!” She turned eagerly to the gentleman. He replied with the most charmingly imperious disdain: “Personally, I prefer my wine to taste of grapes.”
James Thurber’s famous cartoon also made fun of this high-flown wine language:
“It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”
And in Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited”, two young men mock social pretense when they describe the wine they’re tasting:
“It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
“And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”
“Like a swan.”
“Like a unicorn.”
I thought the topper had to be American satirist Ralph Steadman’s description of an Algerian wine:
“Very soft and very round, like sheep’s eyes with square pupils. The hint of promise got steeper and sparser yet, and it began to taste like dull pewter covered in dust and cobwebs stuck to the roof of my mouth.”
But that was before I read this:
Wine X magazine aims to “provide a new voice for a new generation of wine consumers.” Describing one California cabernet, it asks us to “imagine Naomi Campbell in latex.” An Australian shiraz is a “Chippendales dancer in leather chaps—tight, full-bodied and ready for action.” A New Zealand cabernet merlot is like “a Victoria’s Secret fire sale: smoky charred wood, leather, spicy and very seductive.”
You see what I mean? Endless hours of enjoyment await you while you sip that particular vintage that tastes of…? Wait…I have it on the tip of my tongue…but perhaps I should let a critic have the last word? The one who described drinking Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc to “hearing Glen Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations”.
But wines really do have very complex aromas and flavors because there are thousands of different kinds of molecules in wine, and many of those molecules are found in flowers, herbs, fruits, spices and minerals. Although it may seem like a daunting task, most of us can recognize a far wider range of aromas and flavours than we think ourselves capable of. It just takes a little discipline, some concentration, and lots of practice. So put on some music, open a bottle and pour yourself a glass while you enjoy matching these descriptions to your wine:
Austere – Austere means “severe or strict in manner, attitude or appearance”. For a wine this is used to describe a wine which is quite wound up and tight or not showing lush, ripe fruit. This is not necessarily a bad thing as many young wines that are meant to age will be quite austere in their youth, showing abundant acid and/or tannin structure, but will open up nicely with age. This is approximately the opposite of “fruit forward”, fruity, lush and/or opulent.
Bouquet – The perfume of a wine. A wine’s bouquet is generally only described as such if the aromas are particularly complex, with many aromas in harmony, and/or floral. The aroma of a wine which is simple or not particularly pretty would not typically called its bouquet or perfume.
Cassis – One of the most common wine descriptions in tasting notes, cassis is a syrupy liqueur made with black currants. Often used to describe wines with a sweet aroma of ripe currants, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and other rich, dark grapes. Not to be confused with Cassis, the village in Provence on the French Mediterranean coast which produces a crisp, dry white wine.
Complex – A complex wine is one which has a plethora of aromas and flavors, generally harmonizing in a way that makes for a beautiful sensory experience. The best wines in the world are very complex when mature with many different facets of flavor and aromas. The opposite wine descriptions would be “simple” or one dimensional.
Concentrated – A concentrated wine is one which is richly flavored with a high concentration of flavor. This is the opposite of “thin”, “watery”, or “bland”.
Corpulent – Corpulent literally means fat. While this is generally not used as a compliment when referring to a person, it is usually a compliment to a wine which is big and rich and has a round, full feel in the mouth. Usually used to describe very full-bodied wines.
Creosote – Creosote is a dark brown oil distilled from coal tar. It is also used to describe the build up of crusted, oily black material that forms in chimneys. It is used to describe a wine which has a tarry, smokey aroma resembling these things, usually rich red wines. This aroma can come from oak barrels used to age the wine if the oak was heavily charred prior to use.
Density – The density of a wine is how concentrated its flavors are. So a wine with a lot of density can also be said to be concentrated.
Depth – While depth can be used to refer to the density, size and concentration of a wine, it is more appropriately used to describe a sense of many layers of flavors and “stuffing” in the wine. The opposite of a thin or superficial wine, it is a wine which has layers of flavors to explore and a sense that it has a lot “hidden under its hood”.
Elegant – One of the hallmarks of a great wine is its mouthfeel, or its texture in your mouth. Great wines generally have a well put together feel that has no hard edges. Elegant is one of the wine descriptions often used to describe a wine with a great mouthfeel, a wine that is pretty, complete and has no hard edges.
Ethereal – The definition of ethereal is “extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world”. This description is used to describe wines that glide over the palate with a silky, soft texture that almost feels like it is not a liquid, more like a spirit of a wine gliding over your palate. This is usually used to describe wines that have that unique and hard to find characteristic of being both intense in flavor and complex, yet at the same time paradoxically light on its feet.
Forward – A wine which is easy to understand and appreciate. As opposed to an austere or tight wine, this is a wine whose flavors are right out front for you to appreciate. Not hesitant or shy. In your face.
Grip – Great wines have grip on the palate, a sense of texture and traction that grabs your palate and gives the other flavors in the wine balance. This usually results from the wine’s structure of acid and/or tannin. Without grip, a wine will feel flabby, simple or juicy.
Jammy – Like jam, a wine with big, very ripe fruit. Usually reserved for wines with an almost sweet, sticky texture of ripe fruit flavors. Sometimes used to describe a wine which does not have adequate structure to stand up to that sweet, ripe fruit.
Laser-like – This is one of the wine descriptions used to describe a wine with a vibrant, shimmering, “linear” feel to it. As opposed to an opulent or jammy wine, a laser-like wine has bright acidity and focused flavors that cut a sharp swath across your palate. Very commonly used to describe wines with pristine, intense acidic structure such as Savenniè:res, German, Austrian and Alsatian Rieslings, among others.
Layered – This is one of the subjective wine descriptions of a wine which feels like it has layers of flavor, as opposed to a simple wine which is one dimensional. A complex with with “layers” of flavor, density and extract that coat your palate.
Lush – Similar to opulent, a luxuriant wine that coats the palate with forward, pretty flavors. Not austere or closed up.
Intense – This is one of the wine descriptions used to describe a wine with flavors that stand up and make themselves known. Bold and bright flavors that hit your palate with a strong impact. This does not necessarily mean a full-bodied wine, an intense wine, whether big or lighter, is bright and powerful in the way it hits your palate.
Minerally – Minerality is the characteristic of having mineral-like flavors in the wine. Wine, after all, is grown in vines that sit in earth and can absorb things in that vineyard, such as components of rocks and minerals, which can influence the flavors of the wine. Many people would argue that for many types of wine, minerals in the aromas and or flavors is a necessity for greatness. These minerally aromas and flavors can present in many different ways, from chalk, to pencil lead, to stones, to granite, to slate, to gunflint, to petrol, to oyster shell, to salt, to gravel. All of these are somewhat related and often described as mineral flavors.
Mocha – Mocha is coffee flavored with chocolate. Many rich red wines, particularly those with a significant amount of oak aging, can get these wine descriptions. These flavors can be partially from the grapes themselves and partially from the oak aging. Very common in Bordeaux wines, particularly those from the Right Bank with a significant proportion of Merlot.
Monolithic – A big wine, but lacking flavor complexity. Usually a big, slightly clumsy, inelegant wine which is full-bodied, with big flavor, but not much complexity.
Opulent – “Ostentatiously rich and luxuriant or lavish”, opulent is often used similarly to lush and unctuous. It is used to describe very rich, lush, fat and round wines that coat the palate with layers of flavor.
Pain grille – Literally “grilled bread” or “toast”, this aroma can be found in many wines. It is one of the wine descriptions used to describe a wine with a smokey, toasted bread aroma or flavor. Again, this can sometimes come from the wine itself or can be imparted to the wine by the oak aging as the insides of oak barrels are variably toasted prior to use.
Quince – Quince is a fruit, related to apples and pears, that is often used to make jam, jelly and pudding.
Refined – Refined wine is pure, elegant and without blemish. A regal wine which does not have rough edges or imperfections.
Reglisse – The French term for licorice root (black licorice), the aroma and flavors of which can often be found in red wines.
Rich – Concentrated and dense with flavor, as opposed to thin, watery or bland.
Silky – A wine description of the wine’s texture, being fine and like silk. The opposite of rough or rustic.
Smoke – All sorts of smoke-like aromas can be found in wines. Some of this can be caused by the oak aging the wine receives but some wines have it on its own. For example, some wines made of Syrah are described as having a smokey bacon aroma.
Stone – Smelling or tasting stones in a wine is not uncommon. This is one of the common wine descriptions for a wine with stone-like mineral flavors. Some tasters will go as far as to describe the type of stone, such as granite, slate, chalk, or flint.
Torrefaction – Torrefaction is the process of roasting as is used in roasting coffee beans. The process produces typical aromas that we associate with roasted coffee and chocolate-like aromas. Wines with significant roasted qualities are sometimes described as exhibiting torrefaction.
Unctuous – “Having a greasy or soapy feel” literally, this is used to describe wines that have a very rich, creamy texture in the mouth that coats the palate.
Vanillin – Vanillin is the name for a fragrant compound that is the principle component of vanilla. So why don’t we just say a wine smells of vanilla? Well, you can, but people tend to say vanillin to indicate that the aroma or flavor came from another source. French oak barrels are a common source of a bit of a vanillin aroma and flavor.
Velvety – Like silky, these are wine descriptions for the texture or mouthfeel of a wine. Although they are often used interchangeably, some would argue that a velvety wine is a bit more coarse than a silky wine, silky being the epitome of the most elegant, fine and refined wines.
The Finish – is the final impression that remains in your mouth after you have swallowed the wine (ex. lingering). A distinct, smooth, rich lingering finish is ideal. A wine with tastes and flavors that end abruptly with no after taste is considered lacking.