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Wine Books by
Stephen Reiss

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 it."

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 chemical.

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 possible.

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.

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