Wine Descriptions – Terms Wine Writers Use

Ken Collura has been around the wine scene for many years. His bio is rather impressive: a syndicated columnist for over five years (printed on the east coast in Tampa and Richmond and in Taos, NM.,) and writes for the trade magazines Cheers (on the Editorial Advisory Board) and Sante on a regular basis. Prior to moving to Portland, he was head sommelier for nine years at the restaurant with the world’s largest wine list, Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, which carried over a half million bottles in stock. Now he is sommelier at Andina, the Peruvian restaurant downtown.

Wine Descriptions
By Ken Collura

I really get a kick out of the words wine writers use to describe what they’ve tasted. I wonder how much effort is spent trying to come up with yet another evocative description. Sometimes I’m astounded by a few of them. I’ve yet to come across a wine that smells or tastes like fresh blood (one of the many wild ones recently noticed in print), not that I would know what fresh blood actually tastes like.

When describing wines, I generally attempt to keep the words I use straightforward, i.e., dry, off-dry, sweet, light, tannic. Wine buyers need less confusion in their lives, and often prefer recommendations that are written in a concise, more or less simplistic style.

Here are a few fun descriptions gleaned from some recent publications. Honest folks, this is what they said:

Ashtray, Asphalt, Cigar Ash, Cough Syrup, Creosote, Damp Earth, Iron Filings, Melted Licorice, Resin, Road Tar, Scorched Earth, Sea Salt, Scorched Earth and Soy Sauce.

They are often followed by words such as Brooding, Chunky, Candied, Dense, Loamy, Muscular, Musky, Sappy, Seductive, Sexy, Virgin and some others that were Fat, Plump, Stout, Voluptuous and Boisterous.

Quite a grouping. One in particular I like is Dense. To my way of thinking, Dense was this kid Rocco in the sixth grade who shot spitballs at the teacher, or those folks you see driving on the interstate at 80 miles an hour with one hand on the CD-player and the other on the cellphone.

I can empathize with other wine journalists, especially those whose vocation it is to taste thousands of wines a year, then lucidly relate their assessments. It’s difficult to avoid redundancy in one’s comments when faced with such sheer volume.

That being said, let’s try to relate here what grape varieties should taste like, and how to judge “weight” in a wine:

Lighter Whites: I constantly drink the crisper styles of white, such as Albarino, Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. If you like lighter whites, search out those from Europe or New Zealand. It’s cooler there, and the whites have this steely zing. Colder climates produce whites with livelier acidity, and they marry well with loads of dishes, from birds to fruit, salads to seafood.

Richer Whites: Most of the Chardonnays from Australia and California have a distinct punch. So do Rhone varieties such as Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier. They often pack oak and heft, and actually revel in the fact they retain next to no acidity. Lush, soft, powerful, and sometimes alcoholic. Lots of people like this style, but you have to choose the matching foods carefully. Why not try a Pinot Gris next time, maybe something from Oregon or Alsace. Better acids but still plenty of richness.

Lighter Reds: I’ve had customers that ask for a “really heavy Pinot Noir.” The hot 2003 vintage in Oregon produced more than a few of these Zin-Pinots, but in general Pinots are lithe and athletic (good description, eh?) They are equally dexterous in the company of fish, chicken and white meats. Come to think of it, there is no other grape like it. New World Pinot is richer, as one would expect, while French Burgundy is more vivid. Gamay from Beaujolais is a pretty good second choice, at a distinctly friendlier price-level.

Richer Reds: When the meal calls for a bold style of red, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Zinfandel are the grapes I search out. They bring on the power, lighting up the spicy dishes often seen on today’s multi-ethnic menus. Higher alcohol levels, and a fuller, more fruit-driven profile.

I’m aware that numerous grape varieties weren’t mentioned today, but I tried to hone in on those most often seen in the market. And I suppose I could have been even more descriptive, and my explanations more cumbersome, thicker and dense.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    Welcome, Ken. Nice writing. My husband roasts coffee, and is thrilled of late because I’ve started to drink mine black and can now discern the characteristics of the beans. I find that trying to describe the tastes, to be both specific and clear, is at once very easy and a brainteaser, because I find myself chasing the taste, and then, trying to come up with the right language (clean dirt; plum with no sugar; toasted nuts) without being fruity about it. So, my question is: are these wine writers merely honing; have their palates become so attuned that, actually, “ashtray” is the truest way to describe it, or are they being showy?

  2. Pman says

    I usually refer to wines as: “the ones i like” and “the ones that sucks”!
    Ken I think you say very nicely what I refer to as Wine Geeks. People who try to show their “knowledge” in a way so they can get attention… I liked your article. You bring knowledge and class to Portland. The Oregonian will probably hate you for that!

  3. Marshall Manning says

    To me there’s nothing wrong with being a “wine geek”, it’s just a term for someone who is very interested in the fruit of the grape. And most people who are wine geeks aren’t interested in getting attention, they’re just interested in discussing their passion with others. If you think that wine geeks are looking for attention, you probably haven’t known many true wine geeks.

    I also don’t find a problem with using descriptors for aromas and flavors, as long as its an honest attempt to communicate the experience of drinking the wine. Like any other passion, people who are serious about wine will try to communicate that experience to others, and since we can’t taste with another person’s palate, the only way to do that is through descriptors.

    How many of us didn’t cut ourselves as kids and suck out a bit of blood? Or get punched in the face to where it drew blood? Or even have a bloody nose, sniffle, and then get some blood into your mouth? Mix that flavor with iron and scorched earth and some brambly, backwards blackberry fruit and you have the flavor of a young Cornas. Don’t like that? Great, it leaves more Clape for us wine geeks.

  4. Pman says

    I’ve been passionate about wine for 30 years and your self descrition falls right in my descrition of “wine geek”! Intellectual masturbation. You must read the Wine Spectator from cover to cover!
    If you were passionate about wine, you would drink and have fun. You are more about showing your “knowledge” and impress people! I bet you’re part of a wine club and live in the Pearl!

  5. Carolyn Manning says

    pman,

    I think you may have missed Marshall’s point. He considers himself a “wine geek” … as different from a “wine snob” …

    A Wine Snob usually has lots of money (aka lives in the Pearl, as you say), reads the Wine Spectator cover to cover, and allows that publication to determine what he should like, what is “the best” … and what he should spend copious amounts of money on.

    I believe you have mistaken Marshall’s ability to differentiate between the subtle nuances of the iron taste of fresh blood and the stoney flavor of graphite (i.e. pencil lead). He comments on what HE tastes in the wine, not what some publication tells him should be in a wine.

    Not everything tastes the same to everyone. So don’t feel bad if you can’t identify the things he describes in wine. Maybe your palate is different. I didn’t say better or worse … I said different.

    It would be good to get some clarification of your comment “If you were passionate about wine, you would drink and have fun.” I can promise you, he has fun when he has a glass of tasty wine in his hand …and the fun for him goes up if he has someone else to talk to about the wine, to share impressions, to compare the experience.

    And, though you may not believe it or understand it, there are lots of others who are just like him. Not snobs … not rich, not Wine Spectator followers … who really enjoy taking their time to gently swirl, sniff, sip … pause … and swallow … finding the intricate details of a wine worth spending time exploring.

    He is never going to tell you what to like or what to buy or what YOU smell or taste in a wine. A true wine geek leaves that up to the individual taster.

    We’ve been part of a couple of different wine clubs, and found them to be populated with very few wine geeks and a plethora of wine snobs … who “drink and have fun” … opening bottle after bottle of expensive wine, each chosen with the express purpose of impressing the others there … and watching them guzzle those wines as quickly as possible to get to the next one … never stopping to really taste the wine, and only commenting on the price or rarity of the wine before popping the next cork and tossing back the next glass. “Fun” for these guys was apparently the equivilant of “getting smashed.”

    A true wine geek would rather SPIT than get too plastered to taste the next gem. A true wine geek takes a l-o-n-g time with 4 oz of a good wine. A true wine geek views a high Wine Spectator score with skepticism.

    And from our experience, a true wine geek is a friendly, generous, intelligent, clever, creative, kind person. We are surrounded by such people … such friends.

    No, pman … I do believe we are wine geeks. And I do not think you are.

  6. Pman says

    Marshall and Carolyn,
    Well, I do need to sincerely apologize. I have to admit that I made a big mistake confusing “Wine Geek” and “Wine Snob”. And you are completely right.
    I’d just want to say that I still think some descriptives used about wine go a little bit too far. My point is, sometimes I feel that one misses on the pleasure of enjoying tastes and feelings by talking about it too much. Just a quick story… Recently, my wife and I were in an extraordianry restaurant in Europe. We were having the meal of a lifetime. At some point, my wife turns to me and says: “How do you think the chef prepared this?” pointing to her plate. I said; “you know, I don’t really want to even try to understand, I just want to enjoy the moment of eating it…”
    Do you understand where I am going? I LOVE wine. I love the mystic around it, I love the stories, I drink wine very often, it’s actually part of my professional life. But I don’t want to get too geeky about it by fear of loosing the pleasure of drinking it.
    I didn’t mean to offend you. I honestly confused you for a wine snob. I am rather new to visiting this site and didn’t capture entirely the tone of the conversations. Once again, I apologize. I hope someday we’ll meet around a bottle of Cornas, which to you will taste like blood, lead and scortch earth and to me it will taste plain fucking good!
    Cheers!

  7. Carolyn Manning says

    Apology accepted, P.

    I must admit, I would have been right there with your wife, wondering how your amazing dinner was made… becuase I’m a bit of a food geek … not a “foodie” mind you … and I want to know these things so I can make it myself and maybe teach others.

    And while there are those who are wine lovers (not wine snobs) like you who just enjoy the moment a good glass of wine affords, there are those (wine geeks, like my Marshall) who totally DIG the academics of the wine. And the world is a better place because of those wine academics, because they are the ones who long to teach others about the wonders of wine.

    I appreciate your apology.

  8. Food Dude says

    I tend to agree with Nancy. When you set up requirements like that, you tend to loose the casual posters because they don’t want to go to the trouble. Sometimes they can be the most interesting. The ones that are going to piss you off, just set up phony email accounts and names. Email verification proves nothing – heck, I have seven email accounts.

    You’ve just got to have a thick skin, and not take comments so personally.

  9. Marshall Manning says

    Pman, while I’ll gladly accept your apology, your original comments were pretty snide and posts like that make me wonder about something that may affect the future of this site.

    I’ve partcipated in online/internet forums for 12 years now, and have found that the most problems arise from boards/blogs that do not require real names and registration policies. For some reason, people feel more comfortable making insults and assumptions about people they don’t know when real names aren’t required. Not only is it rude, but it also reeks of cowardice. If you’ve got something to say, at least have the cajones to stand behind it with your real name instead of a pseudonym. My guess is that you, and others who make these type of comments, would not do it were you to meet me face to face, yet people feel free doing it online for some reason. It’s similar to drivers in vehicles…for some reason they don’t realize that there is a real person behind the wheel of the other car.

    I’d like to see Food Dude require registration as well as a real names policy for anyone who wants to post, and also have a valid, linked e-mail address where people can be reached privately should the need arise.

  10. says

    Hmmm, I don’t like Food Dude needing to play policeman, or requiring real names at all times; there’s a bit of the wild west of all blogs, which is part of the draw, and for the most part, people here are really very good and thoughtful, even when they disagree.

  11. Marshall Manning says

    Actually, Nancy, any owner of a board that requires real names will tell you that once it’s implemented, there’s a lot less policing required.

  12. Marshall Manning says

    I guess it just depends on what type of a blog you want. I think it’s much more interesting to participate where the posters are known to each other and are more considerate than one where casual posters are free to insult anyone and post behind various pseudonyms. I find that casual posters rarely add much to the long-term value of a site.

  13. Chambolle says

    Yeah, can you BELIEVE the Seahawks blew it so bad? Oh, sorry, wrong thread.

    To description and enjoyment: it’s a little disheartening sometimes how people in the wine business don’t seem to have as much interest in enjoying the wine they are tasting as much as they want to critique it, as if being critical is a sign of distinguished taste or knowledge.

    I don’t get to actually get to sit and enjoy wine all that often, because I have to judge it (in a sense) to know whether or not we’re going to buy it. But it’s what I’m always wishing for, the simple enjoyment of a beautiful thing.

    Ken sounds like someone who it would be a pleasure to enjoy a bottle of wine with; there are others out there who would rather poke and prod at the wine like it was a biological specimen.

  14. Carolyn Manning says

    Chambolle, you’re right.

    But people in the wine industry have to be critical of the wine. It’s part of the job description. When shoppers enter a wine store, they expect the help to be able to judge the wines. That implies a certain amount of judgmentalism, true?

    And that is why certain wine geeks I know and love cannot decide if they ever want to get into the wine industry … because they prefer to be analytical, rather than judgemental.

    There is a difference, you know.

    I understand that there is a faction of wine lover that simply wants to drink what tastes good to them. I appreciate that consumer (… much more than the Wine Snob … see above). But there are those who are also intrigued and thrilled by the next possible discovery, and drink new (to them) wines and lables to find yet another gem.

    And I can tell you from personal experience, Ken IS a good companion to drink wine with … whether you’re a wine GEEK or just a wine LOVER.

  15. says

    Well, it’s funny, I just finished drinking a glass of Telmo Rodriguez’s (apostrophe z?) intriguing Al Mouvedre, and I don’t see how you could call it anything other than a light red. So I can’t help but wonder how much of how we categorize the grapes in wine has to do with the winery’s love for new oak and sketchy tricks to enhance body, vs. how much has to do with the grape itself. Sure, Mourvedre is heavier than Pinot Noir, but perhaps it only seems heavy because you left out the apparently less seen (?) cabernet sauvignon grape.

    I mostly drink Spanish reds and light whites because they go so well with vegetarian food. And, uh, because of their low creosote content. I mostly agree with what you say about the dubious comparisons many reviews make, but like some other posters say, sticking to the narrow set of term or literal descriptions would get dull quickly. How many times would I care to read “tastes like tempranillo grapes in french oak”?

  16. Anne says

    Wow, this is all really interesting!
    I see it all in my tasting room. I love the semantics of wine, the connection with others as we share our perceptions and knowledge of it. It’s really fun when a word is used to describe something in a wine that someone else and I both “get”!
    But not everyone enjoys this. For some folks, it really is all about whether they like it or not, period. Probably these are people who don’t have a burning desire to know how a dish was prepared either; the experience is enough. I always hope that enjoyment is at the bottom of all tasting.
    That said, as much as I strive to understand wine, my eyes glaze over when reading some descriptions of wine…makes me wonder how much of the fun of wine description is interactive.

  17. Mostly Running. says

    Ben-

    Without being condescending it means what it means. Much like “berry” or “dark fruit,” it’s a bit imprecise, but it is still a useful descriptor. You should go around and smell different soils. Wet soil, ashy soil. Dirt under spruce trees and dirt near marshland. It is a useful exercise for building up a tool-kit of descriptors as well as being a good way to test your senses.

  18. Gretchen says

    I agree with mostly running, that to build up a bank of descriptors by smelling different soils to build a “tool kit” is great. Smelling lots of different mushrooms can also help. They naturally represent earthy aromas. As well, spend plenty of time around potting soil, and let that imprint in your mind.

    It has helped me in the past to remember that “old world” wines tend to show more earthy aromas, as opposed to “new world” wines. In other words, if you are tasting a new world Pinot Noir, and you think you smell earth, really ask yourself, is that earth, or is that charred oak, or even brettanomyces?

    Other earth descriptors can fall into rock/stone/granite categories, and a good place to define those are to buy rieslings (german) from different regions (Mosel, Rheingau, Rhinehessen, etc). The slaty soils are each very different (gray, to red, to blue) and the differences can be astonishing. Incidentally, “terrior” can be loosely translated to “of the earth” so when you are talking about “terrior”, you are usually talking about earth descriptors. Hope that helps!

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