Baking spices, minerality, spicy earth, fruity, floral … big deal! You’ve progressed past the elementary parlance of winespeak and are ready for the next level of this guide to translating wine tasting notes.
While you might feel confident deciphering the guava-to-pineapple tropical fruit notes of your Oregon Pinot Gris, you might not feel the same self-assurance when it comes to understanding why the literal weight of a wine in your mouth is called “body,” and why would you ever want to drink something tagged as “vegetal.” That’s why we’re here now!
To aid in your memory retention of suggested aromas and flavors, we’ve put together this handy, two-part guide to translating wine tasting notes. We will address common phrases used to paint the descriptive picture of wine and real-life comparisons of what that might smell and taste like to you. Missed Part 1? Check it out here.
Feast your eyes on the wildly helpful educational tool of a “wine aroma/flavor wheel.” Type that phrase into Google and you’ll be presented with a cornucopia of colorful visuals that indicate general smells and tastes a wine can offer, and even narrows it down to more specific scents/flavors from there. It’s a great hand-holding exercise into wine wisdom. While free in most cases because, well, the Internet, our friends at Wine Folly have a wonderful customized upgrade for purchase here.
HERBAL vs. VEGETAL
A sachet of herbs. Tea leaves.Fresh-cut grass. Bell pepper. Like the eucalyptus plant I wish I had. The term herbal is typically used to note just that — herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, and even tea. These characteristics can be perceived as savory or floral as well, and are usually used in a positive context. Vegetal, on the other hand, is a relatively like-minded term that can also be a negative descriptor. Think positive: just-mowed lawn in spring, ripe tomato, tomato leaf, earthy mushroom; Avoid the negative: medicinal, stewed, cabbage. Wines to find these attributes: Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc
Caramelized sugar. Cigar box. Toasted coconut. Charred wood. When it comes to identifying the presence of oak in wines, it all comes down to how much contact the juice had with the oak, how old that barrel is and how toasted/charred its staves are. New oak barrels can impart more assertive notes than ones that have been previously used by other wines and vintages, and different types of wood (like American, Hungarian or French oak, or even Acacia) also offer varying impacts on the wine. The presence of “too much oak” can result in negative traits while a judicious application of the barrel usage can result in finesse, balance and structure. Think positive: sweet spices, creme brulee, toasted or smoked cedar; Avoid the negative: popcorn, butterscotch and burnt flavors.
Wines to find these attributes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Malbec
Light, medium or full. The body, or the weight or richness, of a wine is more succinct when it comes to its descriptors, but possibly more confusing to actually grasp. While it might be off-putting to consider how heavy a wine is as it sits in your mouth, think about how it feels — is it light and brisk with acid, medium with noticeable tannins hugging your tongue, or full, broad and giving your mouth all the feels? Lighter-bodied wines are often perceived with more acid and less tannin, medium with less acid and more tannin, and fuller-bodied wines often with a lot of everything. Oak can play a role in the boldness of body in a wine, so can grape variety, as well as the alcohol level and the residual sugar (if any). All flavors and all wines apply here!
Lingering acid. Lengthy tannins. Fruit-forward aftertaste. Silky smooth finish. The finish of a wine is the final impression it leaves on your palate. This can be the grip of tannins, tingle of acid or dominant flavors lasting as they cling to your tongue long after you swallow the wine. The length of the finish — how long you continue to sense those impacts after you’ve tasted the wine — can be affiliated with a higher-quality wine, and a shorter finish with one less-than-so. The texture of the wine also makes a play here — smooth, gripping, sharp are all terms used to explain that phenomenon. Going full circle to one of our inaugural messages in this guide: The finish is your final impression of the wine, and that impression should be a taste you enjoy hanging around for a bit longer. All flavors and all wines apply here — drink what you like!
In case you missed it, here’s Part 1 of this series! https://sipmagazine.com/guide-to-translating-wine-tasting-notes-part-1/