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.

One example: 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. 

Herbaceous, 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.