Cherries, rocks, and wet dogs in your wine
by Thor Iverson
How to describe the taste of wine? As a tally of measurable components like
With wine-critic buzz-words like
mouth-filling, forward, and angular? With metaphors ("a
chunky, geeky kid brother to the reserve bottling")? All are valid to some
degree, but the most useful way to describe wine is the most obvious: relating
the actual sensations one experiences while tasting and smelling it.
"Excuse me," you're probably asking, "did you say smelling? Is wine a
beverage or a nasal spray?" This is a good time to introduce two of the most
important words in wine tasting: nose and palate. The nose is the
smell of a wine, usually judged by swirling the liquid, sticking your schnozz
right into the glass (or directly over it; major cool points are deducted for
dunking your nose into the wine itself), and taking a big whiff. Swirling and
sniffing may make you feel silly, but your nose is much more sensitive than
your tongue, and reveals a lot of things about what went into (and what you'll
eventually get out of) the wine. Your mouth is easily distracted by things like
and alcohol and can miss the subtle nuances that make wine really interesting.
Palate is a little more complicated; it describes the range of sensations once
the wine enters your mouth, and includes stages known as the attack (the
initial wine-to-tongue contact), the finish (the aftertaste once the
wine has been swallowed), and the mid-palate (everything in between).
So what does wine taste like? Well, if you've read the tasting notes in
previous columns -- or shelf displays in
wine stores, or the back labels on
bottles -- you might conclude that wine tastes like a mélange of fruit,
vegetables, spices, flowers, rocks, and animal products. Wine connoisseurs
sometimes seem to speak in code, but it's really no more than an attempt to
isolate individual flavors and smells in the wine, and then to describe the
wine as a combination of those characteristics. And all it takes to develop
that ability is practice.
Next time you put something in your mouth -- it doesn't matter whether it's
caviar or a Big Mac -- pay attention to the way it tastes and smells. Go out of
your way to taste fruits and vegetables. Smell a wet rock, or a wet dog
(really). When you smell and taste carefully, you accumulate a mental library
of aromas and flavors. Now go retaste some of your favorite wines. Try to
describe your impressions, in print or out loud. You'll be amazed at the
difference in your perception. Soon you'll be announcing to the world: "This
Big Mac has a runny nose, a beefy mid-palate, and a finish reminiscent of
This week's wine recommendations cover a wide range of tastes and flavors;
after trying them, refer back to our tasting notes to see if you agree.
1997 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau ($11.99). The yearly release of
this French wine is an international event, and it's one of the easiest and
simplest wines to understand. The nose and palate are both boisterous mouthfuls
of berries with shades of cantaloupe and a distinct grapey quality. Serve it
slightly chilled with just about anything, though it will really shine with
duck or venison in a berry sauce.
1994 Trimbach Riesling ($17.99). The polar opposite of Beaujolais
Nouveau, this restrained and austere white from
Alsace has mild peach and
citrus flavors, underpinned by a distinct stony character and some
it with poultry or pasta in any sort of creamy sauce.
1991 José Maria da Fonseca Terras Altas (Dão) ($7.99).
makes more than just ports,
though this dry red (tasting of
blueberries, sour apples, chocolate, black cherries, and cedar) bears a passing
resemblance to its sweeter brethren. Match it with spicy meats, vegetables, or
1994 Rooiberg Cellars Jerepíko ($11.99). A South African
wine with a nose of coffee, cloves, and red meat (don't worry, it's a common
smell in red wines). On the palate, there's an unmistakable current of prune,
chocolate, and squash. Yes, it's a little odd, but give it a try.
1994 Charles Schleret Gewurztraminer Herrenweg ($17.99). An
white from the highly individualistic gewürztraminer grape (in case you're
wondering, it's pronounced "geh-vurz-tra-mee-nair"), with an oily,
spicy, roasted-nut and rose-petal taste and a nearly endless finish. The
flavors will show best with sausage, spicy pork and poultry dishes, and foie
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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