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In a word
How to discuss red wine like a pro

One way wine differs from most things we put in our mouths (nutritional or otherwise) is that many of us feel compelled to describe it in some way. Most wine drinkers, however, are a bit uncomfortable, fearing that they lack the vocabulary to do their beverage justice. So this week I’m going to explore some words commonly used to describe red wines. Next time, I’ll focus on whites.

There are essentially two categories of wine description: technical and poetic. Of course, no matter how technical you might get, all words are, to a degree, poetic. Let’s take a simple example, a word like “fine.” The technical definition probably distinguishes “fine” wines made from vinifera — the classic grape varieties — from “any fermented juice.” But the term also has a poetic dimension: a wine becomes fine as a result of its taste and context. And that’s the purpose of saying anything about wine — to put it in some kind of context.

In the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote one of the most famous quotations about wine, describing California as a place “where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry.” Hard to argue with that (or the proposition that fine wine is, to a great degree, a product of great “soil”). But I’m not sure how much such poetic words help people. Even if critics could, using choice words, evoke exactly the sensation a wine creates, these descriptions might not offer practical guidance to the uninitiated.

Sometimes, for example, I describe intense merlots as “jazzy.” But as you know from the Ken Burns PBS documentary, this could refer to feelings evoked by anything from the swing of Louis Armstrong and his era to the work of Miles Davis (indeed, Miles Davis’s jazz had many forms, but I digress). I use the term “jazzy” because, in contrast to most merlots, which are tightly wound within a limited range of flavors, a really nice merlot has more of a range, more bounce, more notes, and greater complexity. Hence, a great merlot seems “jazzy” in comparison to other, more straightforward merlots.

That’s context. But in order for the poetic term to make sense, you have to know or intuit something about merlot. That’s why most good descriptions of wine have elements that are both poetic and, to an extent, technical (i.e., based on isolable factors in the wine itself). We often call a red wine “big”: this usually means it has a lot of flavor, but it can also mean it is high in alcohol. A “hot” wine is too high in alcohol. A “clean” wine has no bacterial or chemical faults, such as brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast; “brett” for short). One can mention “tannins” (“hard” wines have excessive tannin), “tobacco” or “cedar” or “cigar box” flavors (often a function of extended oak aging), “barnyard” or “funk” (actually a desirable smell and taste in certain pinot noirs, which tend to give you more flavors of the soil).

“Earthy” and “mineral” refer to the soil or terroir aspects of a wine. Certain syrahs are called “smoky,” while great cabernets can have hints of eucalyptus (Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” cabernet sauvignon is famous for this, but Bordeaux’s Château Latour alludes to it as well). Most red wines taste like some fruit or other: these are often separated into “red” and “black,” with red fruits being strawberries, cherries, red currants, and raspberries, and “dark” or black fruits being black currants, blackberries, and Bing cherries. Some wines are plummy, others redolent of blueberries or boysenberries.

There are spicy wines (such as shirazes and other Rhône varietals), with tastes like cloves. Some wines have more floral characteristics — Italian varietals like nebbiolo offer lavender, while other Italian wines evoke rose petals. Although there may be no disputing matters of taste, having a sense of what these words mean will increase your confidence next time you wish to describe a wine. Appreciating the bottled poetry makes for a pleasant, and perhaps more memorable, wine experience.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: April 26-May 3, 2001

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