from the Melting Pot of the Pacific
Winespeak Made Easy
"It's a na´ve domestic burgundy," as James Thurber's famous, old cartoon character says at the dinner table, "but I think you'll be amused by its presumption." Or as Hawaii's late, great Rap Replinger has "Auntie Marialani" describing Beaujolais on her cooking show -- "sub-tle yet annoying, and flamboyantly indiscreet... not too sweet, not too rancid, just-right-eh?"
What may be even more amusing is the attempt of the Wine Brats movement - a fairly well funded group of gen Xers who have been holding "Wine Raves" across the country to drum up interest amongst 20-somethings - to change the language of wine altogether. In Wine X magazine, for instance, a white wine I may describe as soft, fragrant and slightly sweet, they describe as "like having safe sex in the produce aisle at Safeway - green, fruity and hints of rubber." I may think of a Merlot as round and smooth; but to Wine X, it may be "Laura Dern on a bearskin rug with the Lost Boys - sexy, leathery and dark."
The question is, whose winespeak is the most indiscreet - the old or the new generation's?
But relax, because there are still many straightforward, sensible ways of describing wine that won't send your dinner guests snorting and snickering. Here is a quickie rundown on the three most basic ways of talking about wine:
Dryness/Sweetness - Just as a wine is either white, red or pink, it is either dry - tasting completely without sweetness - or with some degree of sweetness. Most Rieslings (especially those from Germany, California or Washington St.) and White Zinfandels are at least slightly sweet, which most certainly makes them easy to drink and appreciate. Most Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs (also called Fume Blancs), and red wines in general tend to be dry. You needn't describe a good California Syrah, for instance, as "lying in a box of sand with Christina Applegate grinding peppercorns on your stomach." "Wonderfully dry and peppery" should do it.
Body - Although this word invites variant imagery, it has long been considered the best and most expressive way to describe a wine's weight - either "light," "medium," or "full" in body. For white wines, the amount of alcohol has a lot to do with body. German Rieslings with just 8% or 10% alcohol are very light, or "delicate," in body. Chardonnays, which reach levels of 13%-14% alcohol, are invariably "full bodied." For red wines, both alcohol and tannin - the phenolic compounds derived from grape skins and seeds - contribute to sensations of body. Red Beaujolais from France, for instance, have very little tannin, and so tend to taste light. California grown Syrahs, on the other hand, can be quite full - or "big," "thick," or "heavy" (take your pick of descriptors) - and inviting, with or without a virtual date with Christina Applegate.
Aroma/Flavor - These are related terms because flavor is not possible without aroma. If you've ever tried to eat your favorite dish when you have a bad cold and your nose is stuffed up, then you know what I mean -- if you can't smell, you can't taste. "Aroma," to put it simply, is a nice way to say smell or odor. The mystery of fine wine, which is the fermented product of grapes, is that it rarely tastes like "grapes" -- at least not like a Welch's. Instead, the aroma and flavor of, say, Chardonnay tends to have a remarkable resemblance to apples, pears, or both; and when a Chardonnay is aged in white oak barrels (as it often is), it tastes like creamy or vanilla laced apples and pears, since oak has a tendency to impart that kind of flavor. Sauvignon Blancs are often described as "melony" because their aromas resemble a lush, juicy green melon. White Zinfandels tend to be watermelony; and red Zinfandels are often described as blackberry or raspberry "jammy" because, shades of Knotts Berry, that's exactly what they're like -- at least the good ones!
So now that you know the sensible words, what are the most pretentious? The wine world, as it were, is full of them - words that make even a certified wine nut like me cringe. Here are a few that should be used only with caution:
Bouquet - This fancy, smell-related term is a favorite among experts because it supposedly refers to the complexity of aromas that finer wines develop through barrel or bottle aging. If you can stand in front of a mirror and say, "this wine has a lovely bouquet," then your blood is surely a lot colder, or bluer, than mine!
Legs - This is a good party word because it's bound to get people talking about arms, feet, toes, or entire smorgasbords of imaginary body parts. "Legs" are supposed to refer to the rivulets of wine as it slides down a wine glass; and generally speaking, the higher in alcohol a wine (resulting in greater surface tension), the more visible the legs; or arms, toes, feet, etc.
Malolactic - Oh, how the wine experts love this word. The really hip ones simply say "ML" - "this wine is a full-ML style," or "that is a good, crisp, non-malolactic wine." Malolactic refers to a secondary fermentation fine wines often undergo because their natural malic acid content is not stable enough and turns into lactic acid. The result is a softer wine with lower acidity (the tart or puckery taste in wine). The fact of the matter is that non-malolactic wines are often better than "100% ML" wines, and vice-versa. In other words, whether or not a wine has undergone this natural process is far less important than the quality of the winemaking and origin of the wine's grapes. So get out your radar, because this meaningless expression is a sure sign of geekiness!
Buttery - Smoothly textured, richly oaked, full malolactic wines (particularly Chardonnays) are often described as "buttery." But really - does a wine that tastes like something Fabio would rub on his chest sound all that attractive? Nix this word, and the people who use it. Besides, "silky" smooth or "velvety" rich sound a lot sexier!
Breathe - Wine snobs like to uncork their bottles or pour them into open decanters minutes or hours before they drink them because they believe that exposure to oxygen increases overall quality. They say they are letting their wines "breathe." In a pig's eye. People breathe, and so do other living, pumping things, but not wine! In fact, in one recent Decanter - self described as the "World's Greatest Wine Magazine" - there was a report on a test done by some of the U.K.'s most discriminating palates, who could neither tell the difference nor establish a pattern of preference between wines which were decanted minutes before tasting, hours before tasting, or simply popped and immediately poured. Not only is the benefit of "breathing" a myth, the word itself is just plain (as John Cleese would put it) silly!
So there you have it, the ABCs and XYZZZZs of wine talk!
Feb. 14, 2000