Wine Tasting Terms
As with other specialised activities, tasting has acquired a fairly extensive vocabulary of its own. In an attempt to translate what is a personal and sensory experience into words, lists of terms and phrases often appear in wine guides, some of them more likely to confuse than to enlighten the beginner – which leads to the jokes about wine ‘in talk’ and James Thurber’s ‘naïve little domestic Burgundy – but I think you’ll be amused by its pretensions’. I do not know whether devotees of golf, bridge, music, balletare similarly mocked – it is accepted that these worlds have their languages. But, because everyone drinks, everybody thinks that they have a right to try and describe various tastes. Of course this is so, but it usually takes a great deal of effort and concentration to find the exact word or phrase to express certain taste reactions – which is why serious tasters do not react well to those who rush up and engage in social chat when they are endeavouring to formulate an exact phrase in their notes while the wine is in their mouth!
There are certain terms that are easily understood and that have become part of a common language of wine: full-bodied, clean, finishing short, unbalanced, possessing depth, weighty, fresh, crisp, fleshy, elegant, dumb, reserved, trailing away (long finish), scented. Most people would be able to relate these to certain wines. Then there are the technical terms – it is’ imprudent to make use of these unless you know exactly what they mean or imply: volatile acidity, dirty, maderised, oxidised, yeasty. All these are terms that convey something is not right. The chemist or scientist will use highly specialised terms – good and bad – to express his experiences, if he is talking to fellow-technicians.
The member of the wine trade may make use of some foreign terms, especially French ones, in exchanging views with those on the same level of understanding: a vinfin (which is not really the same thing as a ‘fine wine’), bien equilibri (well balanced – usually referring to the balance of fruit acidity and alcohol), net or nette (perfectly finished, clean, as it should be), mou (flabby) and so on. The exact meaning of some terms cannot be easily and shortly translated; and even those who don’t speak the language will understand their significance.
Remember that tasting young wines is not in any way the same as drinking them when they are ready to be enjoyed. Great wines rarely taste enjoyable while they are young but the onlooker will detect hidden qualities, promise of character, something undeveloped, something mysterious. It is also important to remember that some words may have a special significance in relation to wine: for example ‘light’ means a table, and ‘heavy’ a fortified wine.
The whole point of trying to say or write what a wine ‘says’ when it is tasted, is essentially communication with even one other person. You may receive a clear impression of what a wine is like – but if you can’t translate this so that somebody else understands what you have found in the wine, then both shared enjoyment and good business are barred. For example, if someone who has never tasted wines with any seriousness before, says to the buyer of a big firm ‘That wine was nice’; the lack of precision is infuriating – all the man is doing is saying that he liked the wine. But why did he like it? If, however, he says I loved that wine – it smelt like spring flowers and had a fruity flavour – a bit like grapes but not really grapey, more like a ripe pear – and it freshened up my mouth, I’d like to drink more!’ then this can be translated into the sort of impressions one might relate to, for example, a good Alsace Gewurztraminer.
People often do not realise that a description which may not seem to indicate praise, can be very much in a wine’s favour: ‘haystack’ is my own shorthand for the sort of Gewurztraminer that I like; ‘midden’ was that of my own teacher. Communication is what is important – most people know what you mean if you say ‘Smells of nice clean tiles’, even though the wine really doesn’t smell of tiles, it merely associates its smell with something that evokes ‘clean tiles’ in the taster.
In compiling a personal list of tasting terms, the wine lover should be definite, using concrete rather than abstract words, and everyday analogies, being aware that something may seem unpleasant because it is unfamiliar, therefore should try to register it without simply saying ‘horrid’: then any reference to these terms can be a valuable guide, personally and generally. To cite from my own experience: why does the Sauvignon grape invariably say ‘old steel carving knife’ to me? I don’t really know – but I have identified it, when I could not have known the grape was present, in a wine I was tasting for the first time.
If you are trying to register tastes and find that the terms you have heard or read – though some good wine books have excellent vocabularies – don’t help you, then make up your own without hesitation. Try, when you have formed your own set of tasting terms, to relate them to the terms used by those who are involved in wine as business. Say ‘continental lavatories’, ‘Cherry-ade’, ‘cough mixture’, ‘cold steel’, ‘this wine hasn’t shed its puppy-fat’, ‘this wine is the sort of woman who always shows her underwear – and has dirty shoulder-straps’, ‘a military man of a wine’, ‘a gigolo’, ‘a pretty soubrette’, ‘a great aristocrat’ . . . .all these phrases mean something to anyone of sensitivity. Never hesitate to say what you think of wines to the most important authorities, if you can do so in a way that shows you have thought out what the wine has ‘said’ to you.