Decoding wine babble

Decoding wine babble

Don’t you love it when someone tastes a wine and then blurts out something like:

“Oh, meadow flowers, misty mornings, a whiff of honeysuckle, ripe dewberry, I’m getting bergamot, hmmm, Jersey caramel, a whisper of manuka honey, Banda Island nutmeg, an undertone of grilled mongongo nuts, blah, blah …”

Meaningless wine babble. This sort of thing tells us little about the wine in question.

Wine is a complex beverage, its aroma and flavour due to about 60 different compounds, and as a consequence accurately describing a wine is difficult. If one or two of these compounds is in abundance and dominating it’s a bit easier. For example, when sauvignon blanc gets quite ripe it displays a strong passionfruit character, which makes it easier to describe, though the wine itself may be mono-dimensional and simple.

Some descriptors are more useful than others in actually giving you some insight into the wine being assessed. For example, chardonnay picked early in the ripening phase tastes a bit citrusy – some tasters call it ‘grapefruit’. Leave chardonnay on the vine longer and the flavours soften into what some tasters refer to as ‘white peach’. Later still the flavours morph into tropical and ‘yellow peach’ territory. But at the end of the day the fruit we are tasting is called chardonnay and these descriptors are simply (and inadequately) guiding us to what we might expect from the chardonnay in this particular bottle.

Sometimes the simplest descriptions of wines can tell you a lot. For example, red wines are sometimes described as having ‘red fruits’ or ‘black fruits’. Shiraz grown in a cool region is more likely to show bright ‘red fruits’ than the same variety in a warm region where ‘black fruits’ dominate. On any particular vineyard, shiraz picked early will have more red fruits on show. Pick it later and the ‘black fruit’ character will come to the fore.

Somewhat surprisingly, many tasting notes overflowing with flowery descriptors sometimes totally ignore the all-important structure of the wine in question. How does the wine feel in your mouth? Is it lean, crisp and acid-driven or is it richer and higher in alcohol. Is the texture smooth or coarse? Is it short or long on the palate? So much of the pleasure of a wine flows from its balance and how it feels as it slides across your palate.

If you are lucky enough to be sipping on a silky, complex wine, with lots of aromas and flavours competing for your attention, just accept that it will be hard to describe.

Here’s a tip: don’t even try. Just enjoy it.