How To Do Wine
A lesson in how to taste, describe, enjoy and write about wine.
The manner in which wine professionals tend to describe wine is often a mystery for many. In my experience, I have found that an absence of knowledge about wine — I won’t dare call it ignorance — can be intimidating, and therefore leads to a sort of abstinence when it comes to enjoying the true magnificence of wine. The goal of this article is to help readers overcome their apprehension about being deep with wine, and unveil the mystery behind how wine snobs actually get snobby with wine. Below I provide a true professional description of an actual bottle of red, then I breakdown how I managed to construct the story and details.
The below is a description regarding a 2012 Languedoc Syrah-Grenache-Mourvedre (GSM) red blend.
Ancient riverbed stones are easily detected along with a delicate salinity from the Mediterranean sea. This wine has a deep ruby hue and a mellow electric rim, while the nose is rustic and earthy. The slight scent of diesel is almost disturbing, yet curiously seductive, and is followed by fine dried tobacco and crisp autumn maple leaves freshly fallen onto a sun-drenched forest floor. Fresh cut la quetsche ou prune de Damas, or Damascus Plum, and vine ready bramble fruit, accompanies the nostalgic notes of fresh cut barley straw.
The first sip of this wine is a refreshing wash of elegance, with subtle dark stone fruit flavors coming and going. The second sip confirms that this is a seaside wine, as the taste of the sweet Mediterranean air engulfs the sensations. The third sip follows a bite of French goat cheese, and couples the velvety feel of the wine along with the flavors of eating fine olive tapenade. The fourth sip amplifies the nutty flavors of the cheese and brings forth flavors of boysenberry jam.
Pair this wine with a T-Bone steak sprinkled with baked goat cheese and a side of paprika seasoned fries.
So what does all this mean, and how did we arrive at such a detailed description of fermented grape juice? Below are the steps that are taken to transform something as simple as drinking liquid into an ethereal experience.
1. Remove all cologne, perfume, incense, dogs, garlic, or other strong odors from the environment.
This is vital since mixing aromas and flavors makes it impossible to actually experience the wine. It’s that simple.
2. Look at the wine while it’s in the glass
Professionals tend to look for a number of visual cues regarding the quality and creation of the wine, but for the purpose of writing seductive experiences, it really isn’t that helpful. Wine typically looks like, well, wine. The differences between various white wines are far more noticeable than reds, and rosés aren’t overly dynamic visually. You may have noticed that the visual component of the above wine description was very short, and that’s because it’s not really all that helpful when trying to sell it. People want to know what it smells like, tastes like, and perhaps most importantly, what it feels like. In the above description, medium ruby is a standard description for some GSM wines, however, this wine is a bit deeper than most GSM’s, and also there is something sexier about the term dark ruby.
3. Smell the wine
While it sounds simple, using the olfactory senses to examine a wine is actually quite complicated. Much of the ability to describe the scent of wine comes from the experience of smelling many wines, but also from actually smelling the objects being used to describe it. For example, if someone has never smelled papaya before, then they would never use that as a descriptor, but once they became familiar with that fruit, and perhaps other tropical fruits, then they will incorporate it into their repertoire. Some professionals actually take the time to experience fruits, vegetables, forest floors, mushrooms, and petroleum, in order to better pick out the various scents that wines can offer.
4. Taste the wine
You might be wondering at this point why these steps are so obvious and basic. I promise it will be clear in a moment. For now, yes, taste the wine. Similar to the previous step, experience and repertoire all play a part in how dynamic you are capable of being when it comes to describing the flavors of a wine.
5. Try it with food
Yes, eat food and drink wine. The result will be a variation of the experiences you just previously had. The important thing with this step is not to just do it once, but have several bites with sips of the wine, and also take note of how the experience changes the longer both the wine and food sit.
While the process of examining a wine is important for writing descriptions, it is not, in fact, the most important part. Think of a well-built house; the foundation is vital to the stability, however, it is not the most important part pertaining to the experience of living in it. Writing wine descriptions is similar in that it’s important to have a foundation, yet the true results come from harnessing your experience.
For me, I examine a wine visually for a while, tease myself with it a bit, and then inhale the aroma first from a distance. I will smell the nose of wine for 5–10 minutes before finally allowing myself to indulge in the tasting, but I first absolutely always swirl the wine and inhale deeply prior to actually drinking. Smelling a still wine sitting in a glass provides one dimension of the wine, and changes depending on whether your nose is inches from the glass, or so close that it’s almost wet. Swirling the wine volatilizes the ethers in it, and this changes the entire experience.
Tasting the wine is actually the easy part. If a wine tastes just as it smells, then it’s a simple, and likely cheap, wine. If a wine smells like straw and mushroom but tastes like melon, citrus, and limestone, then that is a dynamic wine. You will rarely hear detailed descriptions of crap wine because they just won’t be very interesting. For example:
“This wine meets your eyes with a strawberry color. The nose of this wine is reminiscent of a strawberry patch on a warm summer day, while the fruity flavors of ripe strawberry dance on your palette. Enjoy this wine with water, or strawberry cream cheese on a plain bagel.”
Again, not very interesting. For this reason, cheap wine usually doesn’t get fancy with the descriptions.
So you might be wondering, “how did we come up with ancient riverbed stones, sweet salinity, and diesel?” These descriptors are partially derived from actual knowledge of the vineyards where the grapes were grown, while another factor is actually noticing those qualities in the wine. The more wines you taste with alluvial rocky soil versus chalk, the more you become aware of the differences. The more wines you smell with petrol notes, such as rieslings, the better you become at picking out that quality of the wine. The rest is emotional. Below are some specifics.
For me, the diesel of this wine is slightly off-putting, however, it makes me want to learn more, and so it sparks my curiosity. Therefore, it is “curiously seductive.” Why diesel? Because petrol can be clean, like vaseline, but in this wine, the gas smell was funkier than that, and also today I didn’t feel like kerosene was very sexy.
The autumn leaves I detected were very dry and crisp, and my imagination took me to a farm in Michigan with freshly fallen leaves on a bright sunny day. I didn’t want to describe the entire scenario, nor did I want to disturb the reader with my childhood memories, so I picked out the words that are the most descriptive, “crisp autumn maple leaves freshly fallen onto the sun-drenched forest floor.” Why maple leaves? Because they are big and beautiful, and the aroma I get from this wine is just that.
“Fresh cut la quetsche ou prune de Damas, or Damascus Plum, and vine ready bramble fruit accompanies the nostalgic notes of fresh cut barley straw,” might sound like utter rubbish, but I assure you it is not. I could just say plum, but that’s not focused enough and doesn’t fully describe what I’m experiencing, and so I go deeper. The plum I’m detecting is dark, earthy and specific, and it’s French. While the Damascus Plum is widely grown in Italy, it is very common to find in France, and I needed words that provided something exotic. Why exotic? Because my experience wasn’t available in the grocery store, it was something that could only be had on a small farm near the Mediterranean, and my personal experience tells me that the answer is, therefore, Damascus Plum. Barley straw is easy since straw and hay aromas are very straightforward, but why barley? Barley is a key ingredient in many beers, and it, therefore, is very frequently paired with hops. The aroma I took from the wine had a hoppy, almost marijuana type aroma, but yet it was very grassy and reminded me of bailing hay. So I took the two words that best matched those two scenarios and voila, “barley straw.”
Perhaps now it is clear that wine descriptions are art, not science. Experience and knowledge helps, but think of it as a musician learning how to play a new instrument. Each flavor and scent you master and become familiar with, the more instruments you can play, and the closer you are to conducting an orchestra of wine experience.