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.
Similarly, rotundone is a chemical discovered recently by the Australian Wine Research Institute (at great cost) that gives a wine a peppery aroma.
As you can see, the language of wine is complicated — and it gets worse when a wine has an aroma that some people love and others detest.
Some red wines smell of a wet dog or manure. I have learned to hate this aroma, which is usually caused by a yeast called brettanomyces.
Yet there are wines that are loaded with this aroma that some people have given very high ratings. In defense, proponents of such wines say they are "complex," a term they almost never define.
Some wine terms are universally accepted, such as the delicate grassy component in many Sauvignon blancs. But there are two other cases we should consider:
- Sauvignon blancs that have no grassy smell at all, but which some people still say smell grassy. The label says the wine is sauvignon blanc so they imagine it's grassy.
- Sauvignon blancs that are called "grassy" when the wine actually has little to do with grass and more to do with weeds. Smell and taste (which are linked) make for a remarkably complex subject that often leads to technical discussions best left to scientists.
The Monell Center in Philadelphia is dedicated to learning more about how the sense of smell works. And the more we know about how certain scents relate to other scents, and to us, the better we'll be able to parse our wines.