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Helpful words that demystify wine appreciation
FEW things are as maddening or as elusive as trying to convey the character of a wine, both for the reader and the writer.
Many wine authorities believe that a wine should be described as specifically as possible, breaking it down into a group of flavour and aroma components that, when all put together, describe the totality in the glass.
I disagree with this approach, for two main reasons. First, when most people drink a wine, they experience it seamlessly, in its complete form, not as a series of discrete individual flavours, some of which, in the tasting notes, can be so esoteric as to be incomprehensible.
Second, these sorts of descriptions capture a wine at a particular moment. But good wines change and evolve, over minutes in the glass, as well as years in the cellar. Overly specific notes often confuse because of the baffling references, and because they are relevant to one distinct moment.
I prefer general descriptions of a wine's character instead. These efforts seem more useful because they don't rely on references that have meaning for the writer but are lost to the reader, and because they are true, I hope, over time rather than at a moment.
Even so, I have found that many readers are confused by these characterisations, too. Perceptions of aroma and flavour are so difficult to describe that many writers form a vocabulary that does not always convey to the reader what the writer has in mind. Even more bewildering is the fact that many writers use the same terms, but in different ways.
I thought it may be useful to the cause of clearer communication to try to define some terms that I use regularly to describe wine.
Can a wine have energy? Absolutely. This quality is hard to describe, but it feels propulsive. It partly concerns texture: how the wine feels in the mouth. But it connotes liveliness as well.
An energetic wine snaps your senses awake, heightens your awareness and implores you to take another sip. Energetic wines generally have good acidity, otherwise they would be dull and flaccid. Good examples of wines made with high-acid grapes - such as riesling, chenin blanc, gamay and barbera - are often energetic. Young, age-worthy wines, like red Burgundy and Champagne, can be energetic as well, while truly great older wines may retain their youthful energy.
A tense wine feels as if it walks a tightrope between forces that threaten to pull it one way or the other, but are so well balanced that the wine never loses its footing. Tense wines can be thrilling - sweet German rieslings are classic examples. They are pulled and pushed by both their sweetness and their acidity, yet never stumble or become cloying or harsh. Tense wines can be said to have energy, with a shiver of uncertainty stirred in.
A textural term that indicates, as the word suggests, a soft, luxuriant sort of richness. The word is applied almost entirely to red wines, which have the potential to be bigger and softer than whites. Other related words: opulent, fleshy, velvety.
It's not quite the opposite of plush, but it's certainly in the other direction. It's also a term related to texture, indicating a wine more skeletal than fleshy. Lean wines are ectomorphs, characterised more by their acidity than by softness. The best require a sense of energy, which galvanises the wine. Without energy, a lean wine can be thin and dull.
Though a liquid, wine can be said to have structure, an architecture of tannins and acidity that gives it figurative shape. Structure is like the bones of a wine, on which the aromas and flavours hang. Some wines, like easy, thirst-quenching bottles made to be consumed young, will have little structure. Others, particularly age-worthy reds like Barolo or Bordeaux, may be so structured that the tannins dominate when young, requiring a few years to recede before the wines are pleasurable to drink.
Tannins primarily come from grape skins, though seeds and stems contribute as well. They are felt mostly in reds, which are macerated with skins to obtain colour. Whites gain most of their structure from acidity, with the exception of orange wines, which are made like reds, leaving the juice to soak with the skins.
If a wine is aged in new oak barrels, it may also absorb tannins from the wood. These tannins differ from grape tannins and can have a bitter, mouth-drying flavour. Obvious oak tannins are a flaw, to me. If a wine has insufficient acidity and tannins, it can be overly soft and flaccid. Too much, and it can be harsh. Tannins that blend in seamlessly are said to be fine, while those that are rugged or chewy are rustic.
A well-structured wine with flavours that arrive in a smooth procession may be called linear. Linear wines have the potential for complexity as the flavours can change and evolve as they linger in the mouth. Without sufficient structure, the wine will be amorphous and soft, with everything arriving at once.
Lingering flavours, which can echo long after swallowing, give a wine length. It's a similar quality to linearity, but not exactly the same, as linearity generally implies complexity, while length indicates a prolonged presence without necessarily any evolution.
A long wine can be deep, too, an added dimension that is also related to texture. A wine with length and depth resonates in the mouth. This is where pleasure lives, the sort of wine where each sip inspires the next.
All the elements come together with clarity in focused wines. They are balanced, proportionate and seamless.
This quality often reflects a wine's alcohol content, as well as the impact of its flavors and textures. Examples include Amarone and very ripe zinfandels and Châteauneuf-du-Papes. They certainly have their place, but they can overwhelm foods, too. Fino sherry is an example of a high-alcohol wine that I would not describe as powerful, because good ones can often feel more fragile than hard-hitting.
Precision goes beyond focus, indicating a wine shepherded along its path from grape to bottle with exceptional skill. Each quality in the wine is exactly as it should be. Nothing is overbearing or out of proportion. For me, the quality of precision is preferable to power, permitting nuances and subtleties to emerge.
Sometimes good wines can feel alive in the glass. Life is a combination of energy, texture and depth, with something more that is difficult to grasp. It's a vibrancy that can be found in wines ranging from simple to profound, and comes from skillful winemaking that is minimally manipulative.
Most obviously, this means a wine in which not all the sugar in the grape juice has been fermented into alcohol. Rieslings and chenin blancs are examples of white wines that can be wonderful either dry or with residual sugar, so long as the sweetness is balanced by acidity. Sweet, blended reds are increasingly popular among mass-market wines, and high-alcohol red wines can seem sweet because they are highly fruity and rich in glycerol, both of which contribute to the perception of sweetness.
Wine is often assumed to be fruity, since it is made from fruit, but many wines are instead savoury. That is, they convey stony, saline, herbal, smoky or floral aromas and flavours, rather than fruitiness. These flavours often go together with high acidity, but not always. Good examples of savoury wines include reds from the Northern Rhone Valley, Chablis and fino sherry, just to name a few.
Perhaps, no word in the wine lexicon has been as controversial as mineral, possibly because some people take it literally, as if it referred to minerals in the soil sucked up through the roots and deposited in the glass. No.
As with most wine descriptions, it is figurative, a general term for the sorts of sensations conveyed by wine. Others criticise it as too general. Why not be more specific? Does it smell or taste like slate? The sidewalk after a rain? I reject that as well. Minerality is a highly useful general term that helps to convey the character of wines, which can seem stony, pebbly or rocky in aroma, flavour and texture. NYTIMES