When a wine writer says that a Zinfandel smells like wild strawberries, some people might assume that the winemaker put actual wild strawberries into the fermentation tank.

People who have been reading wine columns for years know this is silly, but just exactly where does the phrase “wild strawberries” come from? Is it part of some whimsical patois known only to wine experts? Or is it merely hyperbole?

The terminology of tasting can be obscure, obtuse, and even mystifyingly absurd. And it may have absolutely nothing to do what’s actually in the wine. We always hope such terminology is close enough to the actual.

Those of us who are responsible for writing such nonsense can, I admit, get carried away with our own omniscience in regard to the use of language. Almost to the point or complete absurdity.

The late Legh Knowles of Beaulieu Vineyard once commissioned an advertisement to point up the vagueness of our language as it relates to what he called the “Prismatic Luminescence School” of tasting notes. He created an ad for BV wines that asked, facetiously, “Does your wine have prismatic luminescence?”

The implication, of course, was that a wine that had this amorphous trait was good and a wine that did not was not good. It was as simple as that. (Knowles was clearly exasperated by all of the hyperbole.)

This era preceded by a decade the use (ludicrous as it may well have been) of numbers to identify the quality of a wine. Curiously, at one time during this last several-decade-long epoch, we saw a score of 91 move from something devoutly to be wished to a reflection of a completely mediocre product!

That is, 91 was once considered to be a high score. That was about 1984 (thank you, George Orwell!).

However, by 2010, 93 had become a low score. If, somehow, you can explain this to me, please call as soon as possible because I am still totally mystified.

The greatest purveyors of the scoring schema have suggested that the numbers, in and of themselves, have little meaning without the “rest of the story,” which are the tasting notes themselves. They implored us to read the tasting notes carefully.

Since I have never used numbers to describe a wine (I was a mathematics major in college and tend to use numbers far more precisely than randomly placing them on an amorphous and ever-changing liquid), words are my only refuge. And so, to me, words count for an awful lot more. So I read tasting notes.

But often they are as meaningless as are the numbers.

To make them more specific requires using specific terms, not mere hyperbole. We must distinctive-ize the words, so raspberry and strawberry define different elements of the same “berry-ness,” but one is not really close to the other.

When so-called “tasting notes” includes such subjective comments as “hedonistic,” or “gorgeous,” or “mind-blowing,” the notes are no longer specific to the wine. They are then about individualistic observations that have nothing to do with the wine. They have to do with the taster.

Truly meaningful tasting notes relate to elements that are in the wine, as imprecise as these things are.

I have categorized these elements as objectively as I can:

Fruit: these terms relate to actual fruit, whether peach, tomato, berries, citrus, or other aromatics that come from things that grow.

Earth: Terms in this category eminate from things that may be related to dirt, dried fruit elements they have lost their “fruitiness,” and otherwise might be considered related more to dried herbs such as tea, olives, tree bark, and what scientists call thiols. See next article in the series.

Exotic: Here terms relate to extraneous elements such as honey, wet concrete (in the mixer), tree leaves, vegetables such as spinach, kale, and cilantro, and other elements such as white paste, old cigar box, leather, sweaty saddle…

Smoke/roast: These are terms that have no particular relationship to grapes, but probably came from the oak barrels in which the wine was aged. (Barrels usually are toasted, so their interiors pick up a bit of smoke.)

Fermentation Aromas: Elements that come out of the fermenter, such as volatile acidity (similar to violets), esters, aromas related to different clones of the same grape variety.

All of these terms have a way of co-mingling to provide slightly different characteristics that may be seen as one thing to one person and another thing to other people.

Some wines are single-dimensional with only one or two noticeable scents, and others are multifaceted.

Moreover, tasting notes can change in the same class from minute to minute. Wine is a living beverage, and swirling normally improves the intensity of the aromatic. And the taste of the wine changes over a period of time as well as its various constituents are affected positively or negatively by the amount of the aeration the wine receives.

There is a science to this. Machines have been developed to analyze what kind of aromatics a wine delivers immediately after the cork is pulled, and then later after it has been open.

One element often found in wines sealed with a cork can be identified by a gas chromatograph as 2-4-6-trichloroanisole. This is commonly called cork taint, and machines can detect it in a few parts per trillion. Good tasters can detect it in concentrations as small as 3 ppt!

Moreover, some people find a particular characteristic (such as amyl acetate, the smell of a banana) to be a positive in some wines (say in Pinot Gris), and the same exact characteristic might seem completely negative in a different wine (in say Cabernet Sauvignon).

Many aromas are learned experiences. To many novice tasters the banana-y smell in a white wine (amyl acetate) can be an attractive element of complexity, but for someone who has worked with a variety of solvents, the same exact smell can be off-putting. Amyl acetate is found in several solvents. This is much the same way that some people love the smell of cilantro while others equate it with laundry detergent and cannot abide it.

The main attributes of each particular grape varietal once was regarded as somewhat immutable because winemakers loved the basic elements and did not attempt to avoid them in grapes that were allowed to mature on the vine to natural ripeness.

Shortly after World War II, winemakers became convinced they could alter how wines came out by simply altering the harvest date(s), and as time went by, the typical varietal characteristics of each great variety meant less and less, and the ability to sell wine became greater and greater.

Thus were consumers educated to prefer a particular style of red wine, and in most cases the actual varietal characteristics became far less important.

In our next article the endemic varietal characteristics will be mentioned almost as an academic afterthought since they do not come into play and many wine regions of the world, in particular as these grapes adapt to warmer and warmer vineyards add later and later harvesting.

Because of this sad fact of life, I have decided not to focus on individual varietal characteristics, but on the five separate categories listed above in this article that I have identified as representing most of the terms we use to describe wine.


By Dan Berger