Saturday, November 17, 2012

On wine descriptors . . .

I was at a dinner with colleagues when I described a wine as smelling of tomato bush. Some of my more interested and engaged colleagues stuck their noses into the wine and picked up the same aroma. Others just thought I was being my typical wine wanker self (which I undoubtedly was!). The question that then came as to how a wine should be described. Below is an explanation and elaboration on my answer to that question (and a more sober one at that) . . .

In whatever way works for you. As long as your descriptors are a faithful interpretation of what you have tasted, I personally think there is no issue in describing a wine as simply as you want or with as much complexity and as many descriptors as you’ve uncovered. How different people react to your description or style of tasting note, is of course another question. There’s no doubt that wine can evoke flavours and aromas that are quite specific and unique. Moreover, a wine of great complexity can elicit numerous aromas and these descriptors can evolve over time. How you choose to capture and describe these elements, however, is completely up to the individual.

That’s my conclusion for those not interested in a wine-tragic debate about the nature of descriptors and tasting notes, but for those that are read on . . .

While in the Hunter Valley earlier this year, I went with my wife to the Hunter Valley Gardens. Not the kind of place I would normally volunteer to go to, but it was surprisingly good and enjoyable, and worth the visit if you are in the Hunter (and want a break from wine tasting). Anyway, one of the gardens is a rose garden that has probably 30 or 40 different roses. Walking around it, I was amazed how different the fragrance was for each different type of rose. Not only did red roses smell different from white roses, yellow roses, and from purple roses, but there are many different types of red rose, white rose etc. and a Marlena red rose smells discernibly different to a Lincoln red rose.

Anyway, this experience solidified in my mind some thoughts I’ve had for a while now on tasting notes and the descriptors that people use when describing wine. The reason my rose experience is important is that you will see plenty of tasting notes that talk about “floral” aromas, or more specific references to a wine smelling of roses for example. Now for most people, whether they be just the average wine drinker or even a professional wine critic, referencing rose-like aromas in describing a wine would appear quite specific and detailed. Some would even argue that it is wine wankery to get into that level of detail. And yet I could see a Don Burke or even your local florist easily being able to nominate a specific type of rose when smelling a Barolo or any other wine with those type of aromas.

This will be the case with many other wine descriptors. “Grassy” is a common descriptor, looking to describe aromas or tastes that equate somewhat to that of grass. Most of us as kids having eaten grass at some point, and regularly smelling grass, it would seem quite a specific, detailed, and more than adequate descriptor. However, if I’m Les Burdett, or someone else who specialises in curating lawns, ovals, golf courses etc. I’m sure grassy would be seen as a very broad term. Couch grass, Bermuda grass, Red Fescue all have different tastes and aromas.

Of course, the most infamous descriptor in wine is the term minerality. Controvesial because people debate what the source of this minerality is, as well as whether it actually an appropriate descriptor. Wine writer Philip White has argued that you need to be far more specific in describing which mineral you mean, given that there are so many minerals. Is this actually the case?

At the end of the day there is an almost infinite level of detail and complexity you could get into with any wine descriptor you choose to use. Any expert in the field of flowers, plums, tobacco, rocks, or earth could easily provide a far more detailed and arguably accurate descriptor, and each of us will have an area where we naturally can discern aromas and tastes at a more detailed level just given our life experiences and interests.

So does this behoove wine writers to become far more knowledgeable and accurate in the fields from which you draw most of your descriptors? You could do, but I think this is entirely impractical, and not necessarily desirable.

Descriptors can and should be the subject of debate and discussion when looking at a wine, however, they should never be the subject of proscriptive comment, whether it be someone critiquing a term that is supposedly too specific and fanciful, or someone decrying the lack of specificity in your descriptor. I think less is generally more when it comes to descriptors, but ultimately it’s a case of each to their own, and indeed each wine to their own.  Looking back through my own tasting notes, for some wines I have used 6 or 7 quite specific descriptors, while occasionally I have written tasting notes with not a single specific flavour or aroma descriptor (and this has been for some quality, complex wines). I come back to my original statement, which is that as long as your description is faithful to what you have tasted, it doesn’t really matter how many descriptors you use, or the level of detail that your descriptors are at. Sometimes, you don’t even have to use descriptors at all.

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