How to Decipher Wine Descriptions 

Purple Prose & White Lies: How to unravel the tasting note.

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While “firm, tight and charming” might sound like someone you’d like to shag, those same attributes are used to describe wine in tasting notes. Let’s be honest, a wine writer wouldn’t get widely published declaring wine “yummy and delicious.” Tasting notes are a combination of creative, informative and entertaining descriptions of a wine professional’s impression of a wine.

It’s too bad that tasting notes are eclipsed by the ubiquitous 100-point scale. While haunting wine-store aisles, I hear “Hey, honey, this one got 92 points” far too often. Wine tasting is very individual, and some shelf-talker descriptions are farfetched. However, there is insightful information for would-be buyers beyond the large-font, bold numbers. You just have to unravel the notes and sort through the layers of berries and BS.

Wine is endowed with thousands of naturally occurring compounds—many are aromatic and dictate a wine’s flavor profile. The flavors you perceive from any beverage, or food, are due mostly to aromatics. Many of the same exact aromatic compounds in wine are found in fruits, flowers, vegetables, wood, butter and even cat pee. Having never cohabited with a feline, I—thankfully—never pick up on cat wee in my wine.

Interpreting wine is highly subjective and personal. If you’ve never tasted a gooseberry or a black currant, or taken the time to smell the roses, the forest floor, wet leaves in the fall or lychee nuts, those descriptors aren’t meaningful to you. The same goes for dirt, clay, wet saddle, lead pencil and myriad aromas that are used to describe characteristics of certain grape varietals and regional wines.

When a wine writer sits down to a flight of wines, they often know the varietal, vintage and region of origin. The likelihood of the taster picking up aromas and flavors of blackberry, black currant and mint in Cabernet Sauvignon is not a revelation. Those are typical of the varietal. What you should tune in to is how the writer frames those flavors.

If it’s gobs of black fruit, then the wine is likely rich in texture and youthful. Silky, smooth and sleek refer to the wine’s weight, and likely describe a wine that is light- to medium-bodied. The terms vibrant, lively and crisp are ways to describe wines with higher acidity without bringing up the pejorative-sounding term acid.

Terms like lingering and persistent are referencing how long the flavors of the wine last, colloquially referred to as a wine’s finish. The longer the finish, the higher the quality of the wine. Some writers have even referred to 30 and 60-second finishes. I never taste wine with a stopwatch and doubt they do either, but the point is taken.

Case production is often included at the bottom of a tasting note. Wines produced in smaller batches are made with more care and precision and will often translate into what Robert Louis Stevenson romantically called “bottled poetry.” If the production is less than a couple thousand cases, the odds are in your favor.

I’m as guilty as the next wine nerd for talking and writing about aromas of lilac, freshly shaved pencil and silky, concentrated layers of mountain strawberries and Rainier cherries that hint at cinnamon and clove.

Don’t worry if you’re not picking up on notes of eucalyptus or graphite. Wine is about sharing a sensory experience. Hyper-analyzing wine might be tiresome and boring for most, but fine-tuning your senses so that you can appreciate the nuances that wine offers can be gratifying. Use published tasting notes as a buying crutch that will increase the odds of predicting the size, shape and character of the genie in the bottle. 

Louis Koppel is sommelier at Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops.

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