Got in a polite discussion a few weeks back about flavors and aromas in wine. The gist was “you can’t taste apples from something that’s made from grapes.” The reality is that a wine doesn’t taste like it was made from something other than grapes, but it can smell or taste of other things to varying degrees. It tastes like wine, to be sure, though that’s going to vary a lot between grapes, styles of wine, regions, etc. I don’t really want to debate whether or not it’s possible to pick these notes out. Rather, the whole discussion got me thinking about how useful this whole notion is (or isn’t).
When it comes down to it, I don’t buy a wine because it smells of elderberries and tastes of pleasantly rotten horse flesh. I buy it because I hope to enjoy it1. I read what a taster will write about notes they picked out. That said, I don’t select between two similar wines because one tastes like blackberries and one tastes like cherries. What I prefer most is to taste a wine, and say “yes, I like this, I want more” or “interesting, but I’m not going to spend money on it.” Sometimes I get a “well, that’s absolutely terrible,” but that’s not too common; there’s a lot of passable wine out there. I continue to take notes of what aromas and flavors I can decipher, more with hopes of developing my palate — thinking about whether the pear flavors are just ripe or overripe doesn’t really do anything to change my enjoyment of wine. It does, however, allow me to better distinguish between wines. Comparing similar wines to each other the differences are even more obvious and interesting, but when drinking a wine just for the sake of drinking a wine, these are not the thoughts on my mind.
At the same time, this vernacular helps when I’m in unknown territory. Facing a list of dozens of Tempranillos at a Spanish restaurant, I told the sommelier that what I wanted most was a Rioja that was leathery and smoky (which, I suppose are descriptive terms, but fall perhaps into the same category — grapes aren’t leather, though smoke could come from barrel char). There were two wines — one leaned more towards graphite and cassis, the other towards underripe berries. I used the vernacular to communicate roughly what I wanted, and I was able to make an informed decision using the same system, all with no knowledge of the specific grapes, vineyards, winemakers, and whatnot. A win for abstractions!
There are other examples. Say my dealer has two new grower champagnes, and I only really need one bottle of bubbly. One is crisp acid with a lot of apricot and the other is all about in-your-face brioche. I know exactly what he means, and I’m able to make an educated choice.
Maybe a lot of the words tossed at wines by megatasters and individuals is nonsense, but I think it has its place in helping narrow down the decision process when confronted with more options than one can possibly ever make an educated choice about.
A lot of the nonsense in the wine business is just nonsense, but I think I see the point.
1 Sometimes I buy wines because they’re important or impressively made — I appreciate them, but I don’t enjoy them. Or, perhaps, I want to have something around for the person who only drinks white wines, or who appreciates certain types of wines that aren’t my cup of tea.