It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Understanding wine tasting notes.

I was a food enthusiast long before I became a wine enthusiast.  More specifically, I was a cooking and eating enthusiast.  At that time, I owned a wall full of cook books, and was an avid viewer of Saturday morning, PBS cooking shows. 

Several new recipes a week was my goal, and with my wife’s matching food and cooking enthusiasm, the Barras household was cranking out some rather respectable French haute cuisine.  

French was followed by Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and East/West Fusion. (My heritage is Greek, and my wife’s is German, so those cuisines were already deep into our repertoire.)

At first, I followed the recipes closely, with little or no variation in the ingredients or method of preparation.  In didn’t take long, however, to only use the recipes as a blueprint, or general approach; I modified them more often than not.   

Moreover, when reading (and analyzing) a new recipe, I often would have a visceral experience how the finished product would smell and taste.

 This came from the details and cues provided in the recipes, which were, 1) the method of cooking (dry or moist), and 2) the specified herbs and spices, and 3) the nature of the primary ingredient (meat, seafood, poultry).   

“So, what’s this got to do with wine?” you ask.  Just as recipes have ingredients and descriptors (which point to aromatics and flavors), so do wine tasting notes have their pointers.  If you understand or otherwise know how to interpret them, whether in critics’ reviews or on the bottle’s back label, then you will have a strong feeling how a wine will taste without the angst or uncertainty of uninformed buying.  (Of course, a knowledgeable wine clerk can relieve a great deal of that discomfort.)    

So, let’s review a few of them, and begin with white wine descriptors and code words that reveal the winemaker’s usage of one of my favorite objects of criticism: oak.

Or as I prefer to call it, “oak seasoning,” because there are a variety of means (barrels, chips, cubes, shavings, granules, staves, “tea bags”) to achieve that soft, seductive fruit cocktail that is so wildly popular with New World palates.

The tasting notes occasionally will reveal that, in fact, oak was utilized, (typically as barrel fermentation or barrel aging, but NEVER with respect to the other techniques!), and in that case, no sleuthing is needed.  You can proceed to the checkout counter, assuming you are a fan of oaked white wine.

However, if oak usage is not mentioned, then the following code words will alert you that, in fact, oak seasoning has been utilized: vanilla, buttery, butterscotch, rich, creamy, caramel, cloves, nutmeg, pineapple, tropical fruit, mango, papaya, cinnamon, candied and toffee. And as many wine enthusiasts know, those markers and descriptors point directly at one white wine: Chardonnay.

But those same enthusiasts know that Chardonnay is no longer the sole recipient of the oak treatment. For if you are browsing the tasting notes for a Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris (or Grigio), Viognier, Grenache Blanc, or any other of the numerous Italian and French Country white wine varietals, and notice those code words, then what you are getting is a Chardonnay Wannabe!

However, if you like your white wines like I do, unencumbered or unaltered by seasonings that transform the nature and characteristics of the underlying grapes, that style usually points to those that have been fermented and aged in stainless steel.  Wine labels and tasting notes will typically, though not always, mention this when whites are so produced.  

If not, then the following descriptors are leading indicators: clean, crisp, bright, fresh, fruity, vibrant, zesty, juicy, mineral or mineral-driven, steely and flinty. 

Other typical, though not exclusive, pointers are apples (often granny smith), herbal, lemony, kiwi, citrus, bergamot and grapefruit. I should, however, point out that I have occasionally purchased wines that were described with those words, only to be annoyed by the unstated usage of oak seasoning.  Yikes!

Without a doubt, there are distinct differences to those two basic styles.  And while not nearly as clear cut, there are similar distinctions and differences in the way red wines are described in wine tasting notes.  Those particulars will follow in my next month’s posting.  Stay tuned.

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