The language of wine

If I say a green bell pepper tastes like a green bell pepper, you know what I mean. But if I say a Sancerre tastes like a Sancerre, that’s not very helpful. With wine, we need to employ other “languages” in order to put our taste impressions into words.

And putting wine into words is just about the most important skill any wine lover can possess. Why? By talking about a wine and describing it (if even just to yourself), you have something to remember it by. Think about all those times that you’ve had a delicious wine, but weeks (maybe days) later, you don’t really remember what it tasted like—in fact, you may not even remember its name. But if you’d put that wine into words, you would have given yourself something to remember.

And that, in turn, allows you to begin to build a “taste memory” of dozens of wines. All of a sudden, compiling a wine list becomes less complicated, wine buying becomes easier, and in general, you start to feel comfortable about wine in a way you never did before.

Choosing your language

The question is: how exactly do you learn to put wine into words?
The answer is to realize an important fundamental fact: there isn’t a single language of wine that you need to learn. There are many ways of describing what you taste. For most of us, the language that works best is a language we’re already comfortable with.

For example, I once had a student who described a red wine as being like a lime-green trapezoid. It turns out that this woman was a graphic designer. The wine we were tasting was, in fact, under-ripe, hard and angular, with lots of green pepper flavors. As a description, a lime green trapezoid was pretty good. By using her own language she was able to accurately describe the wine to herself and remember it.

There are, of course, a lot of “languages” that can be employed. I know many people who, on tasting a wine, immediately think of it as a piece of music. In my own case, 25 years ago, when I was first starting to learn about wine, I got in the habit of using celebrities as shorthand to remember wines and grape varieties: Chardonnay is Marilyn Monroe—soft, blond, round and fleshy; Sauvignon Blanc is Lady Gaga—taut, wild and sassy; Zinfandel is Arnold Schwarzenegger—muscular, full-bodied and thick. Zany as this might have been, I still think it’s a quick way to remember the personalities of different grapes. And people get it. I recently went into a wine shop and just for fun, asked the salesman to suggest a wine “like Jennifer Aniston.” His eyes twinkled, he chuckled, and he gave me a light-bodied, easygoing Riesling from Australia. It was exactly what I had in mind.

Of course, the language that many of us commonly use to describe wine is the language of food. We say that a wine tastes like cherries or vanilla. There are not only wines that have a taste similar to chocolate, but there are also wines that have a mouthfeel like melted chocolate.

In the end, the most important realization is this: you don’t have to be a wine expert to describe and remember what you’re tasting. You just have to have fun and find a language that makes sense to you.


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