How to Put Wine into Words
By Karen MacNeil, ACWP
One of the most fascinating things about wine is that it is not its own language. If you’re scratching your head over that statement, let me explain. Food, for example, is its own language. If I say a green bell pepper tastes like a green bell pepper, you know what I mean. But if I say a Sancerre tastes like a Sancerre, that’s not very helpful. With wine, we need to employ other “languages” in order to put our taste impressions into words. And putting wine into words is just about the most important skill any wine lover can possess.
Because it’s only by talking about a wine and describing it (if even just to yourself), that you have something to remember it by. Think about all those times that you’ve had a delicious wine, but weeks (maybe days) later, you don’t really remember what it tasted like—in fact, you may not even remember its name! But if you’d put that wine into words, you would have given yourself something to remember. And that, in turn, allows you to begin to build a “taste memory” of dozens of wines. All of a sudden, restaurant wine lists become familiar territory, wine shopping becomes easier, and in general you start to feel comfortable about wine in a way you never did before.
Choosing Your Language
The question is: how exactly do you learn to put wine into words? How do you get beyond the stage where all you can say is “yum” or “yuck?”
The answer is to realize an important fundamental fact: there isn’t a single language of wine that you need to learn. There are many ways of describing what you taste. For most of us, the language that works best is a language we’re already comfortable with.
For example, I once had a student at the Napa campus of the CIA who described a red wine as being like a lime-green-colored trapezoid. It turns out that this woman was a graphic designer by training and every time she tasted a wine, she saw an image, shape, and color in her mind. The wine we were tasting was, in fact, underripe, hard, and angular, with lots of green pepper flavors. As a description, a lime green trapezoid was pretty good. By using her own “design language,” she was able to accurately describe the wine to herself and remember it in the future.
There are, of course, a lot of “languages” that can be employed. I know many people who, on tasting a wine, immediately think of it as a piece of music. In my own case, 25 years ago, when I was first starting to learn about wine, I got in the habit of using celebrities as a sort of language by which to remember not just wines, but grape varieties: Chardonnay is Marilyn Monroe—soft, blond, round, and fleshy; Sauvignon Blanc is Lady Gaga—taut, wild, and sassy; Zinfandel is Arnold Schwarzenegger—muscular, full-bodied, and thick; and so on. Zany as this might have been, I still think it’s a quick way to remember the personalities of different grapes. And people get it. I recently went into a wine shop and just for fun, asked the salesman to suggest a wine “like Jennifer Aniston.” His eyes twinkled, he chuckled, and he gave me a light-bodied, easygoing Riesling from Australia. It was exactly what I had in mind.
Of course, the language that many of us commonly use to describe wine is a language familiar to us all: the language of food. We say, for example, that a wine tastes like cherries or like vanilla. In fact, food is a wonderful way to get a handle on a wine’s flavor—and even a wine’s texture. There are not only wines that have a taste similar to chocolate, but there are also wines that have a mouthfeel like melted chocolate.
In the end, the most important realization is this: you don’t have to be a wine expert to describe and remember what you’re tasting. You just have to have fun and find a language that makes sense to you.
Karen MacNeil is chairman emeritus of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. A James Beard Award winner, she holds an Advanced Certified Wine Professional credential from the CIA and is the author of The Wine Bible.
Is that a Hint of Apricot?
Using foods to describe wine flavors is convenient, and it’s a skill that’s easy to develop. Here are two simple ways:
- Pay a lot more attention to the smell of foods around you when you shop and cook. What does a ripe melon really smell like? How does a tangerine smell different than an orange? Like practicing the piano, this is what I call practicing your nose, and it’s amazing how much it will help you describe wine flavor.
- Buy a basic, neutral-tasting white wine (an inexpensive Pinot Grigio, for example). Pour it out into five wine glasses, and to each glass add a different food. You might add a slice of apricot to one glass, a slice of grapefruit to another, a slice of bell pepper to a third, and so on. Cover each glass with plastic wrap and allow the glasses of wine to marinate for several hours. Remove the food items and smell and taste each wine. I bet you’ll find it really easy to tell the wine with apricot aromas and flavors from the one that’s bell peppery.