For most worldly people, it’s one of the most difficult parts of wine snobbery to adequately describe a wine’s taste using the appropriate jargon – the lusty smell containing lichee and mango, the silky tannin felt on one’s palate, or the never-ending, infinitely lingering aftertaste. But can a drink made from grapes truly contain lichee or mango? What is supposed to be a long aftertaste? And what even is tannin? In today’s article, we’ll explore the basics of the vocabulary of describing wine.
When tasting wine, we usually rely on three fundamental sensory organs: eyes, nose, tongue (clinking the glasses caters to our ears!). In order to move from the easier ones to more complex organs, we’ll start with our eyes. Mistakes can be found anywhere and everywhere, if one knows where to look for them: do we see separation, opalness, or a bleary texture? If not, we may proclaim the wine as crystal clear; meaning that light can’t refract inside it, making it shine inside its glass. When it comes to champagne, the size and durability of the bubbles become more important (a good champagne has tiny bubbles that persist for hours after opening, although the best champagne’s lifetime is measured in minutes, not hours). Still wine may have similar but much more subtle sparkles, which can be caused by a certain re-fermentation once bottled, or even residual CO2. A wine’s colour tells much about its age and can refer to its grape type. The one-year-old furmint made reductively (in a container) may appear as a slight yellow reminding us of lemon or hay. On the other hand, a ten-year-old furmint might have a deeper hay colour or even golden hue and aszú is more in the amber and topaz territories. Yet again, a fresh sárgamuskotály is often completely colourless.
Regarding red wine, we differentiate between edge and seed (this is much easier to inspect in front of a sheet of white paper): the thin peeled kadarka, the pinot noir pale don’t contain seeds, while a merlot or a syrah may have a dark seed inside their ruby tinted skin (the colour of red wines also refer to their ages: the young ones are vivid, purple, and the older ones come off as brick red with a brownish edge).
(We also inspect a wine’s viscosity: as a drop is stuck on the wall of a glass and slowly slides down, one can determine the glicerin contents of the wine, which indicates its bulkiness. It’s an urban legend that a wine’s real value can be determined through this process as well.)
(Wines that make it to commercial distribution are first inspected by NÉBIH – National Food Chain Safety Office – so the less qualified or more faulty wines cannot be sold at stores.)
A strange organ: the nose
The ugly truth is scientifically proven: consumers basically rely on two variables when deciding whether they like a wine or not. The first one is the label while the other is the smell, which is the first intimate impression of the given wine. In contrast to its appearance, the smell can tell one much more about the liquid, and at a deeper level. At a fundamental level, we can describe the same characteristics as before: clarity, out-of-place notes (cork fault, which indicates an overly musty cellar, evokes the smell of wet cardboard, but other wine faults and sicknesses honestly deserve their own articles). Each grape type possesses their own textbook attributes: an Irasi Olivér is not unlike fresh grapejuice with its muskotály-like nature, the olaszrizling resembles almonds, the tramini roses, the kadarka is a spicy treat, while the chardonnay and the furmint are neutral, the hárslevelű is flowery, reminding one of honey, etc. At this point, I’ll forward some good, general advice: letting our imagination run wild and free will produce the best results in terms of describing a smell. It’s quite clear that a 20-year-old guy and a 40-year-old lady will perceive slightly different notes in the same wine due to being in different states of mind or coming from different walks of life.
It must be stated that some molecules are actually found in other fruits (plum, blueberries, redcurrants), while the distinct apricot notes of aszú are probably the cause of association and different aromas which merely resemble apricot jam. The wine-describing jargon ultimately serves the purpose of describing the difference between one wine and another (e.g. ten different rosé): one has more raspberry, another strawberry, the third one is a bit held back, the fourth more intense, and so on. It also helps picking the right meal for the wine and vice versa.
While we use aromas to describe young wine, any older than three years has a bouquet. The first inhalation always says a lot about the wine since the smell is felt the most intensely. Throughout a tasting or a testing of multiple wines, one’s nose is prone to tiring and fatigue, quickly getting used to the ovepowering smells and tastes. It is, after all, the organ that has felt the laziness of urban life the most. It happens way too often that we smell something and it reminds us of a profound memory, perhaps something we remember from grandma’s kitchen during lunchtime, but our brain has an extremely hard time with correctly grasping the name of the smell. For anyone who would prefer to improve their nostrils’ sensory abilities, most wine stores sell sample-sets, which can be used to train our nose to the characteristic aromas of white, red, or rosé wines.
What our mouths may tell us
As man likes to categorise many things, we wine-lovers too prefer to divide smells and tastes into three fundamental attributes: the primary notes (the fruity characters), the secondary (notes originating from the start of fermentation and aging) and the tertiary notes (longer aging, tastes and smells appearing after bottling). The widely spread aroma wheel can also provide support in appropriately naming the tastes we taste, helping us move from the dominant, primary fruits like citrus, through secondary notes such as orange peel, or even tertiary attributes thanks to barrel aging such as a vanilla taste/smell. It’s known that we feel the different tastes like salty, sour, sweet and bitter at different parts of our tongue – even umami has been classified as a basic taste now. When it comes to wine, one can analyse the following fundamental ingredients: sugar (from dry to sweet), acid (this provides the backbone of a wine, especially alongside residual sugar), alcohol (searing as it goes down, or perhaps a sweeter slide), body (consists of the wine’s alcohol and solid contents, how bulky or full it is) and the aforementioned tannin, which is especially attributed to red wines, since it’s mostly improved by soaking on top of the peels (in less ideal situations, the stalk and the seed may increase the tannin in a wine, or even the barrel can achieve this). Tannin can be felt on one’s palate and gums as a contracting sensation, not unlike when we bite into something very sour and bitter at the same time, like sloe.
It can be said about every ingredient that it’s ideal to search for the wine’s balance above all things. This can only be found in truly great wines.
The acid can be: slight or held back (in a warm year white wine), refreshing (young rosé), vivid (in fine tokaji furmint), wild (in rhine risling), garish (in a cool year aszú), harsh (e.g. unripe grape or wine made in cool climates), etc.
The sugar can be: slight (in dry wines), complimenting (in semi-dry tokaji), sweet (in a semisweet wine made from overripe grapes), rich and intense (in a fine szamorodni), billowing (in a good aszú) or overly sweet (in an acidless sweet wine, although this is rare in Tokaj thanks to its species.)
The alcohol can be: discreet, sweet, middling, high, overt, searing.
The wine’s body can be: thin (in a more acidic, low content cserszegi), slender (in an early harvested white wine), middling (in an average kékfrankos), garish, full, thick or full-bodied (like a serious bordeaux red).
Swallowing is not the final step!
It’s worth consciously paying attention to what happens after we swallow wine: most times many different tastes can be felt than before we sip the liquid. This is mainly due to the fact that most wines reveal other smells and aromas after being exposed to air for some time (this is why we recommend letting wine ’sit’ for a little bit, or even inhaling before swallowing, as if trying to make an ’F’ sound with a sharp intake of air). Based on this aftertaste’s length it may be quick or quite long if we can still feel some sensations multiple seconds after swallowing. The clarity of this lingering aftertaste can refer to the grape’s and even the barrel’s qualities, although it can also refer to faults like the cellar’s mouldiness or an overwhelming alcohol level. Consider noting what part one feels for the longest amount of time in one’s mouth: the acid, the sugar, the alcohol, or perhaps the barrel’s sweet spices? Maybe the furmint’s phenol-like bitterness.
The sum of these is the ultimate result of how much we like a particular wine: this is called an impression (on 100-score evaluations, this one is worth an 11). A wine may be completely clear with perfect smell and taste but might still prove to be boring as a stick – on the other hand, an unfiltered, blurry wine can sometimes surprise us with fine smells and full aromas.
It’s all a matter of practice. One can’t let themselves be influenced by winemakers or bloggers or the labels’ descriptions. Finding a suitable container and spending enough time, effort and attention on the wine itself and most importantly letting our imaginations run wild are crucial to improving. Blind tasting is great fun as well, when the wine’s label is covered and unseen: we can find ourselves learning a lot about the liquids when we separate our tastebuds from our prejudices. With such an ability a whole new world opens up, which is capable of entertaining for a long, long time.
translated by Áron Várhelyi