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BERGER: The ins and outs of wine-tasting terminology

Maybe I've been writing about wine too long (40 years), but I'm no longer amused by newcomers to wine writing who leap into the subject feet first and decry the terminology we old-timers use.

An article I saw a few months ago, written by a self-professed beginner, said the writer thought it might be amusing to sit in during a wine competition and taste wines along with some of the experts, and see if he could hold his own.

From what I could tell, he was more mystified than enlightened. Among other observations, he said the experts at his table were sensing aromas he couldn't detect at all.

At least two things are at play here.

1. When a wine expert says a wine smells like strawberries or thawed spinach, the comment isn't meant to be an exact description, only a vague similarity. Example: I often smell gooseberries in New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

But it's not exact, just a smell that is slightly like gooseberries. Those who have never tasted gooseberries would be hard pressed to understand that descriptor.

2. Some wines have flaws so slight that only trained experts can detect them.

Example: At a wine competition a few years ago, two of four panel members detected a whiff of nail-polish remover, well known to winemakers as a flaw that could get worse. The other two tasters, newcomers, loved the wine. They had never been exposed to such low levels of that flaw.

The writer who had chortled about the terminology he heard at the wine competition seemed to assume the experts at his table were making it up as they went.

But there is a broad set of accepted wine terms that are commonly used to describe wine, some of them easy to understand — and some arcane.


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