Finding words for wine
One of the greatest challenges in communicating about the aromas and flavors of wine is the lack of a clear, consistent vocabulary to describe effectively the things we smell and taste. "Winespeak" often falls short of precision: Words like "soft," "sweet," or "fruity" communicate only a broad, general impression. Fanciful descriptors like "elegant" or "masculine" are even less useful.
It can be difficult to find just the right term to describe a wine in words that are both meaningful and precise. As a result, a useful wine-tasting vocabulary consists of relatively few basic words, with a lot of modifying adjectives. It's easiest, perhaps, when a wine's aromas evoke specific, identifiable fruits, from apples, pears or even bananas in whites to the broad range of black fruit (plums, prunes, blackberries) and red fruit (raspberries, strawberries, the fine wines we brew) among the reds.
Add in the non-fruit characteristics that result from such variables as the soil, fermentation, oak barrels and bottle age, and we come up with another vocabulary set that ranges from toast, smoke and black coffee to flowers, nuts and spices. And then there are the not-so-appetizing terms that describe flawed or damaged wines: Vinegar, nail-polish remover, musty, moldy, burnt-match, sauerkraut; "horse sweat," "wet dog," "dirty socks" and even the boldly descriptive French "merde."
Sometimes, though, we'll find an aroma or flavor in wine that's so distinct and yet so elusive that it needs not just a word but a paragraph to describe it. Some of the most intriguing wine characteristics - the ones that reach deeply into our subsconscious and trigger a burst of nostalgia - fall into this category.
So it was, recently, when I was grasping for a way to explain my reaction to "minerality" in wine, a flavor concept that isn't easy to explain because, after all, who eats rocks? Describing a minerally Argentine Malbec, I wrote, "We recently endured a 39-day late-summer drought in these parts, a dry spell that finally ended with long and heavy rains last week. Now, think about walking outdoors after such a drought-breaking rain, and watch the clean runoff water trickling down over hard-baked clay and dusty limestone. Take a deep breath. Remember that fresh, aromatic, earthy smell? When I pick up an aroma like that in wine, it pleases me in a deep and compelling fashion that's much more emotional than rational and that takes me back a very long way."
Ninety words to describe one smell? Whatever works, I guess, but this takes the pursuit of the perfect tasting term to a new level.
So naturally I was delighted to get an E-mail note from a reader at the University of Maryland, who wrote, "Thought you might like to know: the word for the smell of rain on dry ground is 'petrichor.' Perhaps it should enter the lexicon of wine aroma descriptors?"
What a great word! Further research revealed that "petrichor" is achingly, lovably obscure. A relatively recent coinage, invented in 1964 by the Australian geologists I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas, it describes the fresh, earthy smell that fills the air when rain after a dry spell releases molecular oils given off by vegetation into the air.
"Petrichor" ("PET-ruh-core") is based on the Greek root words petros ("stone") and ichor (the transparent fluid that, according to Greek mythology, flowed in the veins of the gods in place of mere mortal blood). It is not listed in any dictionary that I can find, and certainly not in any wine-tasting glossary. But it's such a perfect term for such a lovely wine characteristic that I would be tempted to start using it in tasting reports ... if only anybody knew what it meant.
As noted, I recently mentioned Argentine Malbec as a wine that frequently displays petrich-, er, "rainwater over rocks" character, but it's certainly not the only one. Austrian Grüner Veltliner is a famously "stony" white wine, and I've found similar evocative minerality in Alsatian Riesling. It may show at its most delightful in Loire Valley reds, particularly in wines with a few years of age, cellared long enough that their underlying minerality takes center stage as youthful fruit gives way to reveal it.
The extremely obscure Puzelat 2000 "La Tesnière" Pineau d'Aunis that I've reported previously offers an extremely vivid demonstration of "petrichor." Today, I offer tasting reports on two evocatively minerally Loire reds, with apologies that these specific vintages may be difficult to find at retail because they're a few years old. The Clos Rougeard was a gift from a friend; the Jouguet was purchased locally but was a dusty bottle, two years behind the current release.
For the basics of wine vocabulary, there's no better source than the classic Wine Aroma Wheel created by Dr. Ann Noble, retired oenology professor at the University of California at Davis:
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Clos Rougeard 1998 "Les Poyeaux" Saumur Champigny (Gift)
This very dark reddish-purple wine, 100 percent Cabernet Franc, comes from Saumur-Champigny, on the south bank of the Loire just downstream from Chinon. Its aromas are deep and pure, ripe black plums with an accent of earthy leather. Full black fruit continues on the palate, a bit austere with its tart, lemony acidity; and swmming just beneath the surface is that lovely "petrichor" minerality like fresh rainwater running over limestone. U.S. importer: LDM Wines Inc., NYC; Louis/Dressner Selections. (Nov. 3, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: We served it as a tongue-in-cheek accompaniment with the oven-baked "fries" and cheese sauce featured in this week's Wine Advisor FoodLetter, and it actually fared very well with the sharp Cheddar bechamel. It would make a fine match, too, with a broad range of poultry, pork or even salmon dishes.
VALUE: The 1998 is essentially unavailable except perhaps through auction. The currently available 2000 vintage retails in the $40 range in the U.S., a special-occasion price. However, fans of this minerally, austere Loire style will compare its price to Burgundies of similar quality and recognize a comparative bargain.
WHEN TO DRINK: Fully mature, but with careful cellaring, its lovely minerality and complexity will likely last for another decade.
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Charles Joguet 2000 "Cuvée Terroir" Chinon ($14.99)
Very dark garnet, almost black. Bright, still-youthful Cabernet Franc aromas blend leafy herbaceous scents with bright cherry-berry fruit and a hint of floral white pepper. Fresh and tart, juicy sour-red-cherry fruit follows the nose. Stony Loire minerality is present, but at this point in its evolution it's somewhat veiled by the tart, vibrant fruit. U.S. importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif. (Nov. 4, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Perfect with duck confit over white beans and turnips.
VALUE: For lovers of Loire Cabernet Franc, it beats up on the competition at this mid-teens price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Still young, and likely to show increased complexity and minerality with another year or two on the wine rack or five to 10 in a temperature-controlled cellar.
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Friday, Nov. 5, 2004