When we try wines with friends, one of the consistent topics that comes up in discussion is how to describe wine. It seems tricky, and the more elaborate the descriptors (the worst I have heard of is “women rider saddle after a hard ride”, yes, that happened!), the more intimidating it can be. I always encourage everyone around me to say what comes to mind….imagine the sick mind that came up with the descriptor I just mentioned! On the other hand: We have all sorts of weird smells stored in our brains (from our childhood mostly). And so if a wine smells like, say, old socks, then say so. Nothing is too crazy. Just go for it. Wine is, among many other things, a communicator. And only when we talk about what we smell or taste in a free and open way, without being intimidated about embarrassing ourselves, can we really enjoy the conversational part and the wine itself.
As with everything, there are some basics, and my new found friends over at Parade magazine, Allie and Melissa (we met at VinItaly), wrote a great piece about these basics a while back. The key is “FEW”, which stands for fruit, earth and wood, which make up the components of wine aroma. They go through all three with helpful examples, and do so in an entertaining way that does it’s job: Take away the intimidation factor.
One of the key takeaways for me has been that I need to smell everything around me, apples in the supermarket, the fresh ground coffee I put in my espresso tin can, the rusty spots in our mailbox. Only if our brain knows what something smells like we can identify that in the wines we drink. My case in point is gooseberry: I often find gooseberry in wines (a German obsession of a tart, yet sweet berry), while most of my American friends have no idea what a gooseberry is and therefore cannot identify it. The beauty of all of this is that flavors are subjective, shaped by our perceptions and knowledge. As with most knowledge, we get better as we practice.
If you want to learn more about these, head over to Allie and Mel’s article. I found it very enlightening!
My wine smelling and describing goes something like this…”Ooh, this smells drinkable.”
LOL, cannot argue with that approach, right? :)
Not many can argue with the approach. Especially since I’m already strong arming across the table, forcefully pouring wine into empty glasses. I mean, it smells drinkable!!
Best drinking buddy ever.
I grow gooseberries – love them! Currants and gooseberries are certainly not common American fruits – but they are some of my favorites.
In my experience,outside of class, it isn’t the identification of the aromas and flavors that dominate the conversation, but the experiences around that person’s reason for identifying it. I have learned lots about people I recently met just because of their wine perceptions over the last few months. Maybe they know me better for similar reasons.
You do???? OMG, you are probably the first American I find that grows gooseberries. They are SO good. My uncle would always bring us some from his garden.
Ha, and what a great point about the eternal question “Now what made you think that?” I never thought of it that way, but it does make sense. It reveals a lot about ourselves, in an intimate environment, and it could well be that it is one of the reasons why our wine tasting group has become so close. Thanks for weighing in!!
We had a very close wine(&beer)/dinner group before moving and are looking forward to finding that niche of friends again here.
Lots of work for a seemingly small harvest, but well worth the stabs from the gooseberry bushes and the tender care to pull the currants.
Good luck with finding a new group!! I know how important it’s been to me.
And I can only imagine the work that goes into harvesting gooseberries, and even more so currants. I’m totally addicted to currants, and it is so hard to find them here…
this is true, and wow, what a descriptor, but apparently someone knew that smell. love the ‘few’ approach, and i’ve had many wine classes through my years of waitressing, bartending and catering, while going to school, but nothing has really stuck with me. i just tend to go with taste and instinct, never being very good with descriptors. i like what you said about wine being a communicator, and not to be inhibited while describing it. i will now take a new, fearless, approach )
Or that someone (an older white rich male) imagined what that smell would be like…
Taste and instinct are two great components in assessing wines. I guess my point was to encourage to talk about what it is that makes you like or dislike a wine, whether bouquet or taste or emotion. There’s nothing to be afraid of! And good for you on the fearless approach!! :)
Great post! I agree that we (should) all pull from our own experience when trying to describe something – in this case the bouquet of a wine. Same for the flavors, of course. My personal opinion is that it doesn’t help to get overly creative or work too hard. Then again, what you smell is what you smell. As a volunteer [not getting paid to take or write tasting notes] there’s really no pressure to “perform.” And it isn’t a perfect process because whoever is doing the whiffing just may not have the sniffing experience to identify a particular scent. We’re only human, and it’s a big, big world of aromas out there! I like making my best effort at taking notes because what I smell (and what I taste) is part of the enjoyment I get from drinking a wine. Sometimes I find that I enjoy the bouquet of a particular wine more than the flavor, and it may be the reason I’d buy another bottle.
I am totally with you on the “work not too hard” part! It is what it is, but you don’t have to try to extract every last sniff out of the wine.
And as I just explained to Jeff, to me also it is part of the fun of drinking wine to do that. And I have had the same experience: That at times the bouquet is what makes me come back, not necessarily the taste… Thanks for sharing!!
I know I might be in a minority here, but I no longer see the point in trying to identify whether a wine smells like “crushed stone” or “stewed quince”. I think I agree with Eric Asimov, who wrote:
“From grape to glass, wine is a wonderfully expansive topic. It hurts me to see it reduced so often to tasting notes, those comically over-specific efforts to capture aromas and flavors in a phrase. If you want to know whether a wine smells more like guava or jackfruit, I’m afraid I’m not your guy. Frankly, wine is greater and more interesting than that.”
I tried for a while to go down the rabbit hole of tasting notes, thinking that was what a “wine critic” or “wine writer” did (I fancy myself one of those, I guess). After reading and hearing truly ridiculous tasting notes, I just thought it best to describe the basic elements of the wine and whether I liked it or not and try to throw in a fun story with it.
With all due respect to Allie and Melissa, what is knowing that someone thinks a wine smells like “elderberry, with hints of anise and saffron, followed by wet rock, damp leaves and cedar” really going to do for you?
I hear you and get your point. It’s why I usually weave emotions and impressions around my notes. However, two or maybe three points:
To me, tasting wine is also about identifying aromas. It is part of what I enjoy drinking wine. And it is part of the experience as well. I am not trying to go the whole way and nail everything down, especially knowing how subjective flavor components are. But if my initial reaction (or later revelations) let me identify something, then I am happy and jot that down.
Allie and Mel wrote this article not for the wine writer, but for people who ask how to “taste” wine in a more conscious manner. And that’s where I think the article is helpful. Again, if you see the association of aromas as part of the fun of drinking wine, then this will help you.
Lastly, I also usually just chuckle at overly descriptive tasting notes. They can be very amusing and over the top…and they don’t tell me the reader much about the wine, especially when you read another tasting note about the same wine. Since these tasting notes do not really tell a story, or emotion about the wine, they are in a vacuum and don’t really help at all.
Thanks for getting into this! Much appreciated, and I didn’t know Asimov’s quote.
I agree with you–I like to try and pick out the aromas as well, particularly when I am drinking with other like-minded wine obsessive types. It becomes a sort of game almost. But, after reading tasting note after tasting note that describes the quince and the elderberry, I begin to wretch (there is one guy in particular that drives me crazy–I’ll send it to you). I like how you weave your emotions and experiences into your notes–that really works for me, at least.
I have started doing the systematic smelling and tasting of things for purposes of branding these smells and tastes in my mind !
Yes, it’s fun, isn’t it?
It is, but I have a hard time with flowers. I think having to juggle the smell, the look, the English name and the French name in my head when I don’t know any of them in the first place is quite a challenge ! You may have the same problem in German, don’t you ?
Ha, indeed! Although my problem is that I just have no clue what flowers smell like. I was never a flower person (my aunt is a florist, but somehow that didn’t translate), so I have a hard time knowing what to call a flower when I see a photo, be it in German or English….there are some where I have an idea, but not many. And the only flowers I even remotely like are forget me nots, tulips, and dragon flower, none of which are particularly aroma intensive or found in wines much….sigh.
I love this! I started doing the same thing with beer – following a simple list of questions – so I could learn how to describe beers better!
Also, I recently had a wine that tasted like a musky-smelling man who just spent the afternoon rolling around in grass. No judgment. ;)