THE WINE TASTES LIKE WHAT?
By Susan Valentine
HAVE YOU NOTICED that reading wine descriptions is getting more like learning
a new language every day? Perhaps the master wine writers are in such competition
with each other that they just have to get more and more creative.
On a snowy day not too long ago, I was in need of some entertainment. Opening a favorite wine magazine, I thought I would take a look at some of their suggested "best wines." I definitely got a laugh at their descriptions, including "all gussied up" and "for the hedonist crowd." Were they talking about the wine or the drinker? Some others that caught my eye: "chalky aftertaste" (do they mean Rolaids?); "hot stone on the finish" (like maybe stone soup?); "silvery, green finish" (why, so I think of something alive and wiggly?); and "a hint of petrol" (my personal favorite). But when I read: "tends to get fleshy with the third sip," I nearly lost it (hate to think what the fourth sip would be like!).
Of course, most wine descriptions include more recognizable flavors, or at least sensory suggestions we can understand. "Peppery red cherry" is often used to describe a Hudson Valley Baco Noir. A Seyval Blanc, grown locally, has been described as: "high acid, including elements of green apples and pineapple, with notes of lemon, grapefruit and pears."
Okay - we all know what these flavors are, but to paraphrase one of Sinatra's more famous quotes: How did all these tastes get into my wine? More importantly, do we even want them in our wine? Most all of us love the concept of a hint of chocolate, but what's with the touch of petrol?
Well, it's really pretty simple. We all know of the four basic tastes we have: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. But just imagine how dull wine drinking would be if that was it. The good news is that each grape contains what is known as "flavor compounds." These compounds are measured in "parts per million, parts per billion and some even in parts per trillion." So basically they are very small, and lots of them can be contained in the cells of the grape skin.
Now these little flavor compounds are also found in green peppers, or grapefruits, or even in the soil where vines grow. They are in figs, nuts, berries, grapes - you get the idea. In other words, a flavor compound is what makes an apple taste like an apple. So when these same compounds find themselves in a grape skin, you get what is described as an "appley taste," or as it is often said - "a hint of apple."
These flavor compounds are also largely responsible for a wine's aroma. Sometimes the hint of "whatever" is actually only in the aroma, but in our brains we sense it as part of the tasting experience. Take the description "floral notes" for instance - how many flowers have any of us tasted? But it is the floral AROMA, so amazing intertwined with the tasting experience, that makes us say, "Yes, right, floral notes!"
More difficult to deal with are descriptions like FLINTY or STONY. These words refer not to aromas, but to an earthiness in the wine - a minerally sensation in the aroma and taste. The term FLESHY on the other hand, refers not to the aroma, but to the body and texture of the wine. A fleshy wine tastes fatter, exhibiting a smoothness and richness on the palate. Then there's still my favorite, the hint of petrol. Yes, some fantastic wines actually do present aromas of what can only be described as "diesel fumes." And yet, is not at all unpleasant. Very dry Riesling from cool climates, like those of Germany or the Hudson Valley, can exhibit such a "fueled" experience.
So it is the wonderful blending of sweet, acidic (sour), tannins (bitter), and alcohol with these flavor compounds that gives the wine makers such a wonderful palate to work with, and gives the Wine Masters such a wide and creative vocabulary with which to tell us what we are about to drink. Granted, sometimes less creative would be appreciated.
Wine descriptions can certainly guide your selections, but no need to let any of these "words" keep you from trying new wines. I have been tasting wine for many years, and still don't always get all these "notes of " and "hints of " but I can tell you it never stops me from finishing the bottle! We all taste differently, so have fun trying to "taste" what the label suggests (see right). But if you can't find that "hint of pear" or don't get any sense of "FLINTY" - so what? Did you like the wine? That's what is important!
And if you did get that "hint of petrol" you are most likely drinking a really great wine. I found only the best wines had this quality!
Susan Valentine has been a student of wine for over 15 years. Having studied at WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) she has also spent considerable time exploring the vineyards of Italy, Napa, and the Hudson Valley. She can often be found teaching about wine at restaurants and events throughout the Hudson Valley. Her newest venture, EventPlannerHudsonValley.com is an event planning site featuring the only comprehensive Hudson Valley event calendar.