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BERGER: The sense in wine descriptors

There's been much Internet blather about a recent column in which I chided a newcomer to wine for writing a blog that was disrespectful of the language of wine.

In that article, he slammed those who write about it and used terms that he said were confusing. He wrote that he had heard some wine judges at a competition using some terms he'd never heard, terms he said he couldn't detect in the wines.

I wrote that wine terminology is rarely exact, but it's the closest thing we have to describing what we smell in wine. Fortunately, there is a set of widely accepted terms that almost all wine writers use.

Dr. Ann C. Noble, of the UC Davis department of enology, developed the Wine Aroma Wheel to assist wine tasters in speaking the same language when they taste.

The aroma wheel website notes, "Novice tasters often complain they &‘cannot smell anything' or can't think of a way to describe the aroma of a wine. ... Using the wheel ... will facilitate the description of the flavors you perceive."

Though few terms are exact, there are reasons we use certain ones. For instance, some people say they detect a trace of coffee in some red wines. It isn't exactly coffee; an element in some red wines can smell similar to coffee.

Coffee beans are roasted. This "smoke" aroma isn't dissimilar from the smell of oak barrels in which reds are aged. Most wine barrels are charred intentionally to give the wine a faintly smoky aroma.

As for chardonnay smelling "buttery," I've heard some tasters use the term "butyric" as a synonym. Sounds more sophisticated, but to me butyric is more the smell of rancid butter.

Riesling occasionally has a smell some Americans call kerosene, which can be off-putting. Yet most German wine lovers find this element charming and they call it "toast."

And what is it, exactly? It's the chemical TDN, a shortened form of the chemical 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene.

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