Sunday, 30 September 2012

Can we really describe how wine tastes - Part 2?

Several weeks ago, I starting writing on our ability to really be able to describe how wine tastes.  I mentioned almost all of us would struggle doing that.  First of all, wine comes from grapes and has different levels of sweetness and associated alcohol.  Frankly, most wines tastes like 'grapes' to me!

It is pretty easy to determine if a wine tastes sweet versus dry. It is also relatively easy to determine if a wine is acidic versus softened or mellow.  But a wine that tastes of "cherry, plum, lemon, grass" or even "cat's pee!"  How is that even possible as those types of ingredients are not really in the wine?  Yet, some of those flavors may be coming through or influenced by the type of soil (with lots of limestone that the water is filtering through, for example), or other conditions in which the grapes are grown.

What we are really doing is transferring memories of our current tasting sensation to situations where we obviously did pick up on those flavors such as eating a cherry, drinking lemonade or chewing on grass.  (I have never had anyone admit to me though that they have ever swirled cat's pee in their mouth, but expect some people who have cats have smelled it and remember the sensation.)

Therefore, these tastes can become very real to many people.  Others of us cannot distinguish any difference in flavor.  (Which is why Gallo wine at $5 per bottle sells well enough!)  However, since each of us has different tasting mechanisms and different abilities to remember and be able to accurately describe taste, it is still difficult to compare notes and agree on what wine tastes like.  I have been enjoying wine greatly for a lifetime and can only occasionally do this well with regard to flavor.  I can much better ascertain if a wine is dry, sweet or even sticky, and if a wine has well integrated tannins or not.  But picking out flavors is more difficult for me.

So how do these flavors become apparent or real to us?

I use a simple lexicon when attempting to describe wines: one for white wines and one for reds.  They are as follows:

White Wines:
  • Non-Citrus Fruit
    • Melon
      • Honeydew
      • Rockmelon
    • Kiwi
    • Apple
    • Passionfruit
    • Persimmon
  • Citrus
    • Lemon
    • Lime
    • Orange or Mandarin
    • Grapefruit
  • Sugar
    • Honey
    • Marlmarlade or Jammy (usually with Orange)
  • Buttery (often in very mature, softened Chardonnays)
  • Metallic (often in Riesling and in younger more acidic wines)
    • Metal
    • Kerosene or Battery Acid
Red Wines:
  • Berry
    • Blackberry
    • Boysenberry
    • Strawberry (usually sweeter and jammy)
  • Non-berry Fruit
    • Plum
    • Cherry
  • Cigar or Tobacco (smoky)
  • Leathery
And that's pretty much it.  The other characteristic I pick up in wine flavors is if it is 'damp' or earthy soil, and this is more often with red wine than white wine.

One may ask how is it that a wine could be considered enjoyable when it tastes metallic, smoky or leathery?  Yet, many of us had had great memories and sensations with such flavors.  A metallic taste (if not over-done) provides a crisp or sharp edge and smoky or leathery (remember that new car or briefcase!) on top of the other flavors you have in a red wine provides for a 'multiple sensation' experience.

I expect there are several well-founded and well-studied programs that help describe how wine tastes, but the above structure is about as good a job as I can do.  Hopefully, it will help you get started and start to differentiate some of the nuances and different characteristics of the wines you drink.

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