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.
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.