Sophisticated and balanced with a hint of pretension.
Elegant and silky with a feminine nuance reminiscent of the Old West.
Forward and brazen with a left hook that will leave you speechless.
Seriously? What does this mean?
As an avid “reviewer” of wines—which, let’s be honest, means I get to drink for a living—I can’t help but wonder if people are perplexed by this verbiage. Don’t get me wrong—I love it, but it must confuse the hell out folks: Am I supposed to like the wine that tastes like animal dander warmed by rays of Italian sunshine?
I look at it this way: Wine is a lot like art and music. It is plagued by critics trying to one-up each other in describing tangible items in a way that sounds human and mysterious.
I’m guilty of this, too. I’ve been known to describe certain Napa cabernets as “teenagers at prom ready to give it up on the first date.” It’s not exactly the most tactful way to describe a wine, I know, but it is a more captivating description than simply stating the wine is bold, audacious and very forward.
For years, merlot was described as an iron fist in a velvet glove. My favorite wine geek, writer and importer, the great Terry Theise, once described an obscure little grape called scherube as being riesling’s evil, horny twin. If that doesn’t make you wanna rush out and get your hands on a bottle, nothing will.
Words like fleshy, sexy, demure and even slutty are a wine writer’s way of reinventing the wheel and keeping it interesting. Who wants to read the same old descriptors of New Zealand sauvignon blanc over and over? Gooseberry, cat pee, fresh grass, blah, blah, blah. How many times can one read (or write) about caramel, butterscotch and toasted oak? The flavor profiles haven’t changed; the times have.
But what does it mean when a wine is sexy? How does wine dance across your palate? What does riesling’s evil, horny twin taste like?! It could be so hard to interpret descriptions that have nothing to do with wine … and yet somehow, I know exactly what they mean. How would you describe an apple? Would you say it was crisp and tart with a little sweetness on the finish? Or would you say it was sassy and flirty with a voluptuous side? Are they one in the same?
I am often told by people frustrated with nouveau wine culture that they don’t know how to “talk wine.” They can’t relate. The truth is, you should be able to describe wine however you please—as obscure and abstract as that may be.
There is no secret to knowing how to thoughtfully describe a wine. All one needs to do is pay attention and slow down while enjoying wine. That said, I’m never going to tell you not to slug your favorite vino with reckless abandon, cuz’ that’s fun! But if you want to really understand the flavors in your wine, you need to be present while drinking. At my guided tastings, I always tell people to trust their palate. If you tell me this wine tastes just like your grandma’s strawberry rhubarb pie, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. If you want to tell me a particular wine reminds you of a cat ’o nine tails, go ahead … but I might start to panic that I’ve been roofied.
However, if you are a fan of the more technical lingo and want to have a conversation about wine that’s fairly universal, there are really only a few terms you need in your arsenal:
• Dry: This refers to the sweetness or, more importantly, the lack thereof, in the wine.
• Tannic: Tannins are astringent and slightly bitter. Think of the sensation in your mouth when you sip a tea that’s steeped too long. An overly tannic wine will feel like you just swallowed 36-grit sandpaper.
• Fruity: Not to be confused with sweet, a wine’s fruitiness is determined by its, well, fruity aromas. Whether it’s lemons and pears or blackberries and figs, or jammy and ripe, or fresh-picked and bright, a fruity wine will taste like fruit. See how easy this is?
• Acidity: Commonly confused with tannins, acid is that tingle on your tongue that will make your mouth water. Acid in wine is basically sommelier crack.
• Minerality: Ever heard someone say their wine smells like wet stones and chalk? Maybe they’re drinking a delicious chablis. Minerality is one of the non-fruit components to wine and is present in wines from certain places.
• Earthy: One of the other non-fruit descriptors. Earthy encompasses the aromas of mushrooms, tobacco and leather. Some wine professionals will use the term forest floor, soil or dust to describe earthy wines, but those are just fancy words for dirt.
• Herbaceous: That grassy sauvignon blanc and that cabernet franc that smell like chili peppers are considered herbaceous wines—and these are positive attributes. That vegetal wine that smells like canned green beans = bad. Got it?
I’ve made it my mission to make wine less confusing, more approachable and easier to understand. Does that mean what I say, then, has to be boring or predictable? I think we can swing both ways. (Pardon the pun.) Nothing says we can’t get frisky with our descriptors as long as we can back it up with something quantifiable. A bra stuffed with toilet paper will be discovered eventually.
While I’m on the subject, you should know that as I write, I’m sipping a delightful Barbera d’Asti that is as firm and defined as a shirtless Christian Grey, with a round and soft Kim Kardashian finish. Know what I mean?
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she’s not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.