The Life of Wine

 |  December 29, 2011

One of the most intimidating areas of wine for many – but unfortunately useful for those working in the trade for conveying, well, what a wine tastes like – is the terminology. I say intimidating, because that’s usually how people feel about things they don’t properly understand – a bit like T.S. Eliot poems, or trouser presses. Other words that might be used are ‘pretentious’, ‘annoying’ and ‘pointless’. So, as it’s the beginning of January and many of you probably don’t want to see a bottle of booze ever again – let alone pour a glass from one, sniff it, and then swill it around your mouth – I thought I’d go through the basics and try to defend what can – when not taken to extremes – be a useful tool.

Very simply, the words used to describe wine are a code for conveying the look, smell and taste of a wine. Words like mineral, tannic or crikey! Like any code, it has to be learnt before it can be used with confidence, and I think this is what many of us get concerned about. It’s why we all sometimes feel a bit shy when asked our opinion of a wine, and why we come out with: ‘I dunno why I like it; I just do, so I’m sticking with it.’

However, being able to describe a wine in a universal language – a bit like being able to order a drink and a plate of food in the Thai language – makes things so much simpler, transparent, and dare I use the word fun? It means we can walk into a vintners and say: ‘I really liked that cabernet I bought last time, but do you have something a little softer with less tannin and more fruit?’ Bingo! A simple ‘tasting note’ which means the shop owner feels more comfortable – because he now has something to work with – and you end up with a more pleasurable drinking experience.

Having a bit of wine language to chuck around in a restaurant will have a similar affect on a sommelier or waiter, and reduces the risk of relying on a ‘house wine’ which may simply have the title because the establishment bought a lot of bottles they now need to get rid of.

Nearly everybody has the ability to describe a wine. Most of us have tasted a wide enough range of fruit, and all wine should be fruity, to be able to say: ‘Hey! That tastes of blackberries, plums, and that strange, hairy fruit I still have half of in my fridge’ – and be absolutely correct in saying so.

Below is a by no means comprehensive list of single varieties, along with the words most commonly flung around in the wine world to describe a rainbow of tastes. Obviously, the country of origin, the blend, the winemaker, and a host of other factors influence the taste; but unlike The Waste Land, or a trouser press, they are pretty self explanatory. And remember: only you know what you smell, taste, and like.

Cabernet Sauvignon – Redcurrants, vanilla, bell pepper, mint, tobacco, spice. Smells like pencil shavings, blackcurrants and cigar boxes.
Syrah or Shiraz – Coffee, chocolate, violets, leather, dark berries, blackcurrants, spice and black pepper; often with a hint of caramel, truffle and creosote.
Merlot – Velvet, toffees, pencil boxes, plums, blackberries, currants and dark cherries, with a hint of herbs.
Malbec – Rich, velvety and dark, with spice, plums, tobacco, raisins and berries in the mouth, usually soft and easy to drink.
Pinot Noir – plums, strawberries, red cherries and other summer fruits, often cabbages and compost (not a bad thing).

Chardonnay – Oaked: butter, toffee, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, toast and tropical fruit. Unoaked: More tangy, with grapefruit, lemon, green apple and other citrusy flavours.
Riesling – Perfumed aromas, tropical fruit, honey and minerals (slate and quartz are often used). Older wines can smell of kerosene or petrol (again, not a bad thing)
Sauvignon Blanc – Crisp and fresh, smells of cut grass, cat’s wee, and herbs. Tropical fruits, asparagus, gooseberries, pears, apples and other green fruits.
Pinot Grigio – Dry, fresh and crisp, tasting of delicate citrus fruits with brilliantly refreshing acidity.
Semillon – Lemon, green apples and lime, or figs, berries and honey with a touch of toast.
And if anyone ever tries to bamboozle you with: The minty minerality of junction 17 on the M25 on the mid-palate, with overtones of cardamom, pyjamas and Beethoven’s 9th on the finish, punch them.

CityWine is a wine initiative by Citylife. During the last quarter of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, CityWine organised a number of wine-focussed events supporting local establishments while stocking up the wine fridges of many wine buyers at well under retail prices.

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