Don't Read Between the Lines
In our reviews of more than 1,500 wines in each issue of the International Wine Cellar, we try to use clear, understandable, jargon-free English to describe the wines in (y)our glass. We don’t anthropomorphize wines
and we avoid esoteric, or overly personal, descriptors, which mean something to
the writer but not much to the reader.
But even clear
English can signify different things to different readers, depending on their
own experience level, their openness to new taste experiences, and the
preconceived notions they bring to wine appreciation.
words like herbs, herbal, green. Many
consumers new to wine appear unwilling to accept red wines with anything
suggesting "greenness," even though long-time collectors know that
herbal elements in a young wine are often the precursors of complex aromatic
and flavor elements that develop with bottle age (such as tobacco, black tea,
tar, forest floor or cedar in classic claret).
Even in very young wines, a note of herbs (dried, medicinal, botanical,
wild) can provide complexity, character and lift to a wine. Whether these
elements are owing to the presence of garrigue, the wild and pungently
herbal/spicy brush that dots rocks and hillsides along France's Mediterranean
coast, or the analogous fynbos influence found in so many South African wines,
they are reflections of their sites and contribute to the distinctiveness of
the local wines.
or—more extreme still—vegetal: now
that’s another matter. I use these
descriptors for wines that are farther along the green spectrum. A wine that tastes like canned asparagus or
green beans isn’t fun to drink, and if it’s a red wine it probably wasn’t made
from sufficiently ripe grapes. But
herbal does not mean vegetal.
And then there’s
another category of scents used by wine tasters: leather, gamey, wild. (“sauvage” is the way
the French describe these wines). If
you’re the kind of taster who prizes fruit above all else, you might not
welcome meatiness in your wine, but these are not necessarily pejorative
descriptors. Some of the best northern
Rhone syrahs have a gamey quality, as do many of Italy’s Montepulciano wines.
When the English Burgundy
merchant Anthony Hanson wrote that “great Burgundy smells like shit” in the
first edition of his landmark book, Burgundy, in 1982, he was . . . mostly off
base. Wines with strong barnyard or
leathery scents were typically flawed wines, due to the spoilage yeast
brettanomyces or to the use of old, dirty barrels. A lot of Burgundies tasted like that before
producers got more serious about hygiene in the cellars. And yet:
great Burgundy, as it evolves in bottle, can show a distinctly decadent
quality that aficionados appreciate. So
don’t automatically be afraid of wines with a bit of rudeness. Although every
taster has a different olfactory threshold, notes of roasted game birds or
animal fur can contribute complexity to a wine.
To a great
extent, reactions to freighted descriptors are a generational thing. My wino buddies, who mostly began tasting
seriously about 30 years ago, can handle an herbal quality or a hint of
something feral in their wines. In
contrast to some wine lovers of more recent vintage, they’re not put off by
bracing acidity in a white wine, or by wines that privilege minerality and soil
character over obvious primary fruit.
Flawed wines are rarely the ones I’d want to bury in my cellar, but
wines with personality are another matter altogether.