Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Last updated: 2 years ago

Notes of bullshit: the meaning behind wine tasting terms

Ubyssey wine columnist Joshua Decolongon explains why critics use obtuse tasting terms and descriptors such as "horse blanket" and "crushed rock." Illustration Luella Sun / The Ubyssey

Ubyssey wine columnist Joshua Decolongon explains why critics use obtuse tasting terms and descriptors such as “horse blanket” and “crushed rock.” Illustration Luella Sun / The Ubyssey

Sometimes, wine descriptors are such bullshit. I admit it.

But some people also take it too seriously.

We don’t rake on storytellers for using flirty and fancy language to describe the hundreds of ways that women succumb to the sexual advances of handcuff-wielding businessmen (OK, fine, sometimes), so I don’t understand why similar language can’t be used to describe wine. It’s fun because it becomes both hilariously difficult and gruelling to describe taste through words, since it’s so subjective, and then you don’t know if half of the people talking to you are bullshitting. Alas. There’s a reason why the Harry Potter series wasn’t written as a list of things the main characters did each day.

Let’s poke at an example of one of my own tasting notes: “The wine’s stone fruit, tropical fruit and ginger suggestions evoked the image of a tropical surf wave, with an equivalently heavy texture and the relaxed precision of a ginger surfer. Off-dryness was well-balanced with acid.”

It’s almost like opening an oven at 230 degrees Celsius and getting an instant heat wave of pretentious asshole. (And some wine people are!) But let’s pick this apart.

First off: synonyms and wine jargon galore. Sometimes we refer to the aromas of wine as “the nose” in the same way that we describe the flavours in the mouth as “the palate.” “Notes,” “hints” and “suggestions” all really mean the same thing — I’m sure some people would disagree, but that’s just another case for the whole subjectivity card. The list goes on.

Every wine will have, or will be born with, some form of fruit aroma. It’s relatively easy to describe when you get used to it — it’s the non-fruit descriptors that baffle people. Riled-up customers have been confused by descriptions of “crushed rock” and “baked bread,” but those are just fancy terms for “smells like rocks” and “yeasty.” I’ve also heard and used “horse blanket” and “hospital corridor,” referring to the aromas that the brettanomyces yeast and the Pinotage grape can exude, respectively. Learning wine jargon for the average person is like catching up with #swag and #yolo for the middle-aged dad, so just keep practicing.

There are numerous things to pay attention to on the palate. Sweetness is what most people notice first, the absence of which is referred to as “dryness.” Acidity is also key to balance, where such brightness is needed to balance out sweet fruit flavours. Texture is also important; descriptors will often refer to the weight of the wine. In my case, I referred to the typically oily and heavier texture of a wine made from Gewurztraminer. Red wines will have the added component of tannin, which has a mouth-drying sensation and adds to the body.

Finally, pay attention to how long the flavours last in your mouth: a longer length indicates higher quality, sort of like how good sex might leave a longer-lasting impression.

Once you master the basics, have fun with it! Wine is meant to be an item of pleasure, so don’t let wine terminology scare you, but also don’t be afraid to learn where these terms come from. Drinking is the best way to learn. (Finally.)