Decode the secret language of wine writers
A good review of a wine can mean the difference between buying the bottle and putting it back on the shelf to continue your search. Tasting notes brandish a variety of terms as if they mean something — making the average wine lover, like yourself, just smile, nod, pick up the bottle of rosé with the “light and fruity” sticker and walk away.
The wine writing industry seems to have developed its own language, one that can exclude the consumer. In his article “Communicating your Passion” [April 2015 issue], Tony Aspler, long-time Quench contributor and Canada’s “The Wine Guy,” aptly compares wine experts to academics. When you study a subject for as long as many of the experts have, the language and terminology becomes second nature, to the point where you can’t believe someone wouldn’t understand what it meant.
This mentality is most evident in wine tasting notes. Decoding tasting notes starts with understanding the structure the wine writer uses and how he or she evaluates the wine (it also helps to remember that wine tasting is subjective).
When you’re at a tasting, the first thing they tell you to do is look at the wine. Wine writers will incorporate this first look into their reviews, giving you a sense of the colour and clarity. “The colour, for an expert, is going to tell a lot about the wine,” says Linda Bramble, sommelier, wine writer and the 2010 recipient of the Wine Journalism Award.
These evaluations hold more meaning than just the aesthetics. “Colour is important because it gives you a sense of what to expect in the wine,” says Aspler. “If it’s got deep colour, you know it is probably going to have a lot of flavour.”
It’s not just the hue but also the quality of the colour that indicates the health and age of a wine. “When an agent goes to buy a wine, they’re judging things by the colour,” says Bramble. “For example, if they look at it and the colour is pale orange, that is going to tell the purchaser if it’s oxidized, not Pinot Noir.”
“In red wines, the warmer growing regions will produce deeper colours,” says Aspler. “The colour will change with age, particularly with white wines. Red wines lose colour with age, white wines gain colour with age. They go deeper.”
In addition to the colour type and quality, writers will sometimes mention clarity. “Clarity is good because if a wine is hazy, it could mean the wine is sick, there’s something wrong with it,” says Bramble.
When you read a note that describes a wine as a clear deep ruby, you can infer that the wine is full of flavour, very healthy and possibly still young. Whereas a wine that is more of a clear pale ruby may be more mellow, still healthy and older.
The second part of a tasting is to stick your nose in the glass and take a deep whiff. Writers often indicate the nose by using the term aroma or bouquet. It’s important to note that there is a difference between the two.
“Aroma will refer to what they call the primary aromas of the wine when it’s young,” explains Bramble. “For instance, Cabernet Franc, if it’s a typical Cabernet Franc, will smell of raspberries and red berry fruit. That’s the primary aroma when it’s young.”
“Bouquet is the smell of a finished wine that’s had some age,” Aspler says.
“As it grows and ages, these primary aromas change and they become something broader and more lovely,” explains Bramble. “They’ve melded; they’re not identifiable. Or if they’re identifiable, they’ve changed.“
However, the most important part of this step is to understand the larger role smell plays in wine tasting. “So when you sniff [wine], what are you sniffing for?” asks Bramble. “Well, the health of the wine. You’re also sniffing for the typical smells that the wine is supposed to be. For the consumer, unless he or she understands what you’re looking for when you smell something, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“The nose is the most important organ that you have when it comes to wine tasting, because it’s going to tell you 90 percent of what you want to know about the wine,” Aspler mentions. “What it won’t tell you is how long the wine is going to last in the mouth.”
Next time you read a note with aromas of blackberry and blueberry, you know that the wine is young, with a nose that has yet to mature. And if you see a bouquet of red berry and red fruit, you can consider the wine to be more mature.
Now we get to the meat of any note — the taste. The taste of a wine comes with a multitude of different terms: attack, mid-palate, mouthfeel, palate, finish and more. Breaking up a wine’s taste into its first, second and third phase is the best way to understand what these terms really mean, and how most writers will approach their tasting notes.
“Basically, the three steps to tasting are the immediate taste, what happens on the palate and the finish,” says Aspler. “Attack is a term that expresses how wine immediately feels on the palate. Does it express itself immediately or does it take some time to show itself?”
When writers talk about having specific attack characteristics, that means that these characteristics hit you right from the get go, and — in a good wine at least — will be replaced by parts two and three.
Which brings us to part two — the palate. “Very few people are going to define [palate],” says Bramble. “My definition of palate could be very different from what another person might suggest.”
It’s difficult to pin down an exact, universally recognized definition of palate because the term encompasses many different parts of a wine’s taste. Aspler explains: “the palate is the general sensation of the taste, what happens in the mouth.” Writers will decide which is the best interpretation for their review. But, there are more specific terms used in wine writing that are part of the palate, but have distinct meaning; mid-palate, for example.
“When the wine enters your mouth you get a primary taste and then you can start breaking down the elements,” he continues. “Mid-palate is what happens when the wine evolves on the palate and opens up … because you have the wine in your mouth for a while and it begins to express itself.”
The mid-palate is important. “Some bottles are referred to as doughnut wines. They have an opening and a finish but nothing in the middle,” says Bramble. “So when they refer to something that has body, it’s full in the middle.”
Texture, or mouthfeel, is another part of the palate.
“The mouthfeel is about the texture of the wine, how it feels in the mouth,” says Aspler. “Does it feel soft? Does it feel bright and fresh? Does it feel well balanced? Does it feel velvety in the case of good Burgundy? It’s the tactile expression of the wine in the mouth.”
“We did a study at Brock University to come up with a lexicon to relate that feel,” mentions Bramble. “Dr Gary Pickering had plates with different types of fabrics; silk on one, velvet, a shammy and wool to different grains of sandpaper at the end.” They then tried to compare the feeling on their tongues with the texture of those cloths.
“Mouthfeel can be dry, astringent, smooth,” says Bramble. “It’s all referring to the texture, specifically for red wines. We overlook texture, but our non-conscience pleasure areas are very aware of it.”
But there is a flip side — if the texture isn’t complemented by mid-palate characteristics, or flavours on the attack, it can indicate a poor wine. “Many bottlings are just sweetness and alcohol, which gives great texture, but if you close your eyes, there’s no flavour,” says Bramble. “A good wine has identifiable flavour. Is it important to identify that flavour? Only for personal pleasure so you know what you’re looking for in the future.”
The palate, mid-palate, texture and mouthfeel all represent different facets of the taste that are felt and experienced — writers describe these qualities so you know what to expect in the middle of enjoying your wine. Which brings us to the final tasting phase.
“The end taste is called the finish,” says Aspler. “How does the wine finish? Does it have good length, is it tannic, does it have good lift?”
“The longer you can taste the wine in your mouth, the better the wine,” says Bramble. “Some wines you sip them and they’re gone. Good wines can be sipped and savoured. A long finish is a mark of quality.”
your decoder ring
Wine tasting is subjective. Not everyone will find the same flavours, aromas or sensations, because everyone has had different experiences. Decoding wine notes isn’t just about understanding the terminology, it’s about understanding how the terminology applies to your personal preferences and finding a wine writer that matches you.
“The idea is to find somebody whose palate is similar to your own,” says Bramble. “You have to go out, taste the wines, read the notes … if what they say matches your palate, then they are experts for you. They’re your stand in.”
In the end, your decoder ring isn’t learning the common terminology and how it’s used in wine writing, but rather uncovering the terminology of a specific writer and discerning if his or her reviews are similar to yours, then bookmarking, reading and tasting everything that has been written. Because you know that what they like, you’ll like.
other common tasting terms
body and weight
“Body is about weight. It’s either light bodied, medium bodied or full bodied. That has a lot to do with alcohol and extract.
“It’s not weight in the sense of putting it on the scale; it’s a question of mouthfeel. A wine of high alcohol like Châteauneuf-du-Pape will feel heavier on the palate while Beaujolais, which is lighter in style, it’ll feel lighter.”
“Weight can be equated to the amount of alcohol that gives you a feeling of lightness or heaviness. It could also refer to the amount of extract in a wine — the stuff that’s left over in the morning when you don’t wash the glass.”
“Minerality in a wine … really speaks to the terroir, the soil, in which the wine is grown. If you get that mineral sensation, the wine has absorbed those elements in the soil. It could be crushed stones or chalkiness, something that reminds you of minerals. You get that a lot in Riesling for example. It’s usually more prevalent in cool climate wines, because in warm growing countries the sunshine produces higher alcohol wines, higher fruit extract. So they’re more fruit driven.”
“Well balanced means that the alcohol, the oak, the fruit the acid are … nothing is disjointed. They are harmonious. One element isn’t standing out.”
“The basic components of a wine are its sugar, acidity, tannins (bitterness) and alcohol. Too much of any one component will change the pleasure equation of the wine.”
“This is a difficult [term] since it can be addressed better with experience, but if a novice finds that the taste is lingering long after it’s swallowed and it is appealing from sip to sip, that’s complexity.”
books to read
Every academic subject has a collection of books that experts use as references. Wine is no different. Linda Bramble suggests that anyone interested in learning more about the lexicon of the wine tasting note flip through one of these references:
The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson MW
The Wine Experience by Gérard Basset