The Language of Tasting Wine
By Doug Fabbioli
Tasting wine has been a process that many have made fun of over the years. You have to admit that it is kind of an odd process, seeing that we taste different food and beverages all the time, but don’t always put words to the process. When you listen to an expert describe a wine or a dish, one could be impressed at the detail, or turned off by a boorish display of self-importance. I am always amazed as we watch the Food Network and listen to people taste things. We can’t taste these things, we can only rely on their words and the look of the food. Vocabulary, presentation and connecting with those around you is important in getting your message of wine understanding out without turning people off.
I often find myself describing a wine as the offensive side of an American football team as some people can relate to that example. The base of acid, tannins and alcohol are the line giving balance and structure to the wine. These pieces may not make the highlight reel, but they are critical to overall success. The fruit aspect would be represented by the quarterback. That is often the main player that shows from the vineyard and gets a lot of the credit. When looking at oak character, minerality and spice characters, I think of the other offensive ball handlers. All of these pieces come together to create a dynamic and flavorful beverage that folks like to consume and talk about.
One of the more conventional tools to use in describing wines is an aroma wheel. This piece can help through general descriptions narrowing them down to relatively specific flavors and aromas. So if you smell fruit in a wine, the wheel can walk you through to tree fruit, red fruit, and even red cherry. Some folks may go even further describing cherries jubilee, or Bing cherries or even white cherries. Finding the words help you to connect with the wine as well as others.
Sometimes I will end up describing specific moments in time that come back to me because of the aromas that come out of a wine. The earthiness aroma in a certain wine brought me back to a specific camping trip many years ago when the rain overnight brought out the aromas of the soil in the pine grove where we set up camp. The decades of decaying pine needles created a certain characteristic of aroma that was locked into my brain and came out as I smelled the wine. Ok, I am kind of weird that way!
As you go through your flavor journey of food and wine, don’t be afraid to be weird. Lock in the aromas in your memory and try to attach some words. Bring out those memories as you taste new wines so you can build upon your catalog of characteristics. Make the most of it and you will surprise yourself sometimes!