One of the difficulties in learning about wine is how to express verbally what you taste and smell.
The first thing I teach is that we all have pretty much the same ability to taste but our vocabulary varies depending on our experiences. If I tell you the wine tastes like mango, you may have never tried mango therefore how are you supposed to pick that up? Also flavours are subjective. My mango may be your banana.
The ability to confidently explain the flavours, aromas and sensations you are getting from a wine comes with practice. Still, there are numerous ways to go about it and we see this in the various forms of literature aimed at promoting, selling or recommending wine.
For example, the next time you are in a small, inexpensive restaurant have a look at the wine list and you’ll see descriptions like this: ‘Citrus fruit, subtle oak and fresh herbs lead to a clean palate finishing long and refreshing.’
These descriptions are generic, offering the most basic information and can be applied to a million other wines without changing a word. They are often produced by big multi-national wine companies who throw a few promotional dollars at the owner and get 80 per cent of their wines listed for their troubles. You also see them on back labels.
Then there are the technical notes. When I taste I use a standard method whereby I pick the wine apart, noting the levels of certain components along with flavour and aroma characteristics, fruit intensity and texture.
A note for the same wine as above may look like this: ‘Medium lemon, pronounced and developing. Aromas of lemon, honey and mineral, toasty, balanced oak. Medium acid, dry, full bodied. Short. Ready to drink.’
This kind of note helps me to record how a wine tasted but means very little to the wine drinker. You certainly wouldn’t use it on a wine list or back label. But it is honest and doesn’t contain any marketing guff.
Wine producers make their own notes for marketing purposes and these are designed to talk about the very positive aspects of the wines and why you should buy it. They should accurately reflect the style of the wine but the language will also be dressed to impress.
So how do we talk about wine in real terms? I have never been asked for a wine that tastes of lemon, or a wine with a long finish or medium acid or even subtle oak.
People ask for sweetness and dryness, heavy or light, refreshing or soft, fruity or savoury, smooth or harsh. These words are used by the everyday wine drinker in restaurants and bottle shops around the country.
They are important descriptions that speak about the form and shape of the wine, they are words that people don’t find pretentious or embarrassing. And they should be understood by anyone selling, marketing or educating about wine.