The Language of Wine
How does one convey something as personal as a taste impression;
not the chemical content of a substance, but the flavors and
sensations that the taster is reminded of? Many wine tasters have
resorted to using anthropomorphic terms such as aggressive, clumsy,
gutsy and precocious.
While it is tempting to use such terms, if for no other reason
than they are comfortably familiar, they assign qualities to wine
that it can not possess, and so they are vague, meaningless words.
Many wine tasters use wonderfully poetic but difficult to observe
adjectives, listing a multitude of fruits and flowers. Unfortunately
these trace sensations in wine are always subjective and any two
tasters may not agree on their presence.
What then is the best approach to choosing words to describe
wines? The French, to no one's surprise, tend towards the poetic.
Peynaud the French Enologists, says "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." Not to give the impression that Peynaud does not have a
pragmatic side, he follows his fantasy statement with "Do not over do
As can further be surmised the American Enologist Amerine is
almost completely pragmatic. His approach dictates that no word
should be used that does not directly correspond to a chemical
compound. Amerine writes "... we would make a plea for less fanciful
terms than those so often found in the popular and trade press". He
continues "Unfortunately, existing wine terminology abounds in words
and phrases that have little or no clearly definable meaning with
respect to the sensory evaluation of wines." Amerine along with
Roessler go on to list an invaluable collection of wine words and
their meanings (including their chemical equivalents). They also list
over 200 words not to use.
I personally try to strike a balance between these two approaches.
I do not use flowery language that may not represent universal
interpretations. I keep my stable of wine terms to a minimum, and
with any luck at all I convey the sense of the wine without getting
caught in the trap of describing the taste of the wine.
My own vocabulary evolves, and so should yours. We all start out
using the simplest expressions and watch our phrases become
increasingly more precise. I went through a period where like
Amerine, I would only use the most exacting words. No doubt many of
you will sympathize with this. Coming full circle I now try to use
only those expressions that are truly common denominators, that we
can all relate to.
The "fruit basket syndrome" is very common. Many wine writers like
to evoke the names of specific fruits, where as I prefer to be vague.
Instead of raspberries and blackberries, I just say berries. I take
this approach so that my readers don't feel inadequate for tasting
something that may never have been there.
A great example is the banana vs. strawberry debate. Some people
smell bananas in Beaujolais, some smell strawberries. It turns out
that the scents are not as dissimilar as you might think. There are
only a few compounds that are different at the molecular level, and
blindfolded some people can't tell them apart (honest, try it).
Another time to mention a specific scent or flavor is when there
is wide spread agreement on the term. Currants in Cabernet Sauvignon,
and cherries in Pinot Noir come to mind.
Some specific terms such as buttery pose their own problems. The
butter taste and smell in wine is directly attributed to the presence
of diacetyl. Diacetyl is a byproduct of the malo-lactic fermentation,
and as such its presence relates to a very specific technical
process. To say diacetyl is much more exact, and it speaks of the
process that the wine was made by; however the average consumer would
much rather think that there is butter in their wine than some
Rich, light, heavy, thin and a score of others relate to the body
of wine instead of tastes and smells. These impressions are much
easier to share. Most of us would agree that a wine is heavy, or it
is light. Therefore I try to use these more common images whenever
The colors of wine is a treatise in themselves. White wine ranges
in color from colorless through the yellows, the golds and into the
brown hues. Red wine goes from purple, to red, to orange or brick.
The color of the wine gives some very definite clues as to its state
of maturity. For white wines golden hues show age. In reds it is the
orange hues that show the age.
The fault that I am most guilty of is in using words and terms
that I have made up. To my defense the terms seem to be easy to
understand. Beaujolaised, being like Beaujolais, is a prime example.
Anyone that has had Beaujolais will recognize the quality that makes
it unique. If you haven't had Beaujolais the term is meaningless.
Another crime of winespeak that I perpetrate is the use of
"bright" or "dark" to describe flavors. I feel that this concept is
universal, at least to a degree. Citrus and pineapple are "bright,"
mushrooms and beef are dark.
Once again I return to the debate of numerical ratings. Several of
you have requested that I add numbers to my tasting notes. The
problem I have with the numbers is that they don't convey anything at
all about a wine, and human nature being what it is, we tend to
remember the number and not the description. Is an 86 any better than
a wine that scores 90? I would rather have you ask a wine store clerk
or wine steward for a wine that has berry flavors, than for a wine
that scored a 90.