Describing wines

Every bottle of wine is unique. I would even go so far as to say every taste of wine is different, as is each taster. I think that’s part of wine’s lure. Wine is exotic, dynamic, elusive and personal. One person can taste a wine and love the flavor, and the next person can dislike the same wine because of it. As Justin Howard-Sneyd, a consultant for Laithwaite’s Wine says, “Describing wine is not an exact science; wine and taste are very personal, very subjective things.”

As wine is warmed in your mouth and the longer it lingers over your tongue, the heavier the taste becomes. A mild wine can become spicy after holding for a few seconds, and a slightly sweet wine can start to taste more neutral. Sometimes it takes more than one taste to really experience the full effect of a wine. In my wine appreciation class, nearly 400 of us students taste three wines each night. We have an opportunity to “Speak to the Wine” and describe our reaction to the wines. And even though we all taste the same wine, sometimes I wonder how that can be after listening to the descriptions. I remember a couple of weeks ago we tasted a Spanish fino sherry and I thought it tasted like candied almonds, almond oil or some kind of nut extract. But some of my fellow classmates described the liquid as “cherry,” “sweet like cough syrup,” “melon-y,” and “too sweet.” While I agree that it wasn’t one of my favorite tastes we’ve had, I didn’t taste any of those. Yet when our guest lecturer asked who would buy it, I was one of the only few to raise my hand. I think it’s an acquired taste, albeit hard to describe.

But then again, I think individual wines can be hard to describe. I can compare two Rieslings and describe them both as sort of sweet, with a pear or peachy flavor – but the mouthfeel is totally different for both of them. And I’m not alone in thinking wines are hard to describe, even with a list of descriptors such as the one at the front of my textbook. In this article, English journalist Jasper Copping looks at results of a wine descriptor survey and says, “New research has revealed widespread bewilderment at the terms used by producers, retailers and critics to convey a bottle’s taste.” When given a list of wine descriptors, people still had trouble describing the wines. Most of the trouble came because the surveyed population didn’t understand the descriptors they were supposed to use. I don’t blame them…”nervy” and “brooding” aren’t words I think of in conjunction with wine. I usually stick to the basics, like fruity descriptors, sweet versus dry, and acidic versus mellow. What words do you commonly use to describe wine?