"It is but a naive domestic Burgundy, but I think you will find its presumptuousness amusing." So goes a familiar parody of inflated wine terminology, but one that also has an amusing ring of truth.
Despite frequent obfuscation, however, many wine tasting terms are rooted in reality. That reality is the taste of the wine in the bottle in front of you.
Or, better yet, two or more bottles, as that is the best way to learn about wine tasting. This short course in wine tasting terminology uses four wines, two red and two white. The first flight, using the reds, covers about 80 per cent of the course and involves an investment of about $12 (prices approximate). The second flight, which I consider optional, covers terms specific to white wines, and costs about $18.
The idea is to define some of the key terms in wine tasting, and then to find those tastes in the wines. So, here we go:
Flight No. 1, Reds The wines: Torres Coronas 1986 ($6.50; Spain); Georges DuBoeuf 1989 Co~tes du Rho~ne ($5; France)
Aftertaste: Synonymous with length or finish, it refers to how long the taste of the wine lingers on the palate after it is swallowed. Notice that the fruit of the Co~tes du Rho~ne bursts on the palate like a shooting star -- and fades just as quickly. The Coronas makes a less dramatic entry, but the flavors are prolonged in the mouth after swallowing -- about 15 seconds. That's particularly important when matching wines with foods, because that faint reminder of the wine should still be there when the next morsel is tried.
Complexity: Perhaps the most subjective, it is also the most important characteristic of a good wine. Complex wines have a variety of intricate and subtle flavors. The Coronas has remarkable complexity for a wine in its price range. The aroma is an interplay of spice and vanilla notes (see below), and on the palate, the theme is carried through, with the addition of cherry and strawberry notes as well. The Co~tes du Rho~ne is simpler and more direct, but that's part of the design. It's meant to be quaffed -- indeed gulped -- rather than pondered, and does splendidly with pizza or pasta with tomato-based sauces.
Deep: Though often used to describe a concentrated wine, depth conveys the idea of sequence, one or more flavors followed by other, sometimes rather different ones, on the palate. Though neither of these wines has great depth, I like the way the Coronas starts out with cherry tastes that seem to fan out and become earthier (see below) as it is savored.
Earthy: It is like what one smells walking through damp or shaded forest -- fresh smells of new growth, but also a subtle hint of decaying vegetation. The Coronas is slightly earthy, the Co~tes du Rho~ne not at all.
Fruity/grapy: Fruity is fairly self explanatory, but note that it is not the same as grapy. The Co~tes du Rho~ne, so young and fresh, is grapy -- almost like biting into a bunch of grapes. The older Coronas has more of a blend of red fruits, with some grapiness for sure, but also cherries, strawberries and perhaps even a hint of banana.
Lush: The taste of soft, smooth, somewhat dense fruit without harshness is lush. The Co~tes du Rho~ne is almost lush, but is probably a bit too light to truly qualify for the descriptor.
Oaky: Oak barrels used for aging wine impart a smell and a taste. Oak tastes can be used to season a wine, but no one wants to feel like he is biting into a 2 by 4. The use of oak is the most important distinction between these wines. The scent of newly cut wood is immediately evident on the bouquet of the Coronas. On the palate you may also pick up a light note of burnt toast from the charring involved in making the barrel, as well as a strong note of vanilla. This is an immediate tip-off that American rather than French oak is being used, as French oak has a distinct aroma of violets.
By contrast, the Co~tes du Rho~ne uses no wood whatsoever. The aroma and taste of fresh grapes hits one directly. Note the color also. It is a much more grapy purple than the Coronas. Oaked wines, like the Coronas, take on a more garnet/ruby tone, largely because the porosity of the oak allows some exchange with outside air, which slightly oxidizes the wine. Such oak aging adds complexity and a dash of sophistication. Still, it's hard not to enjoy the fresh, direct grapiness of the Co~tes du Rho~ne. This, by the way, is further enhanced in the Co~tes du Rho~ne by the Beaujolais-derived technique of carbonic maceration, a fermentation technique that accentuates the grapiness of a wine.
Ripe: Grapes left to hang too long ripen into raisins. A wine described as ripe will have a slight, but never excessive note of raisins, which adds richness and warmth. The Coronas, which is made from very ripe grapes grown in the warm vineyards near Barcelona, has a distinctly baked, raisiny note. The Co~tes du Rho~ne seems to have some ripe grapes in it, but my guess is that most of the fruit was picked fairly young, to emphasize freshness.
Spicy: This may be evident in pungent aromas and tastes of pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg or other familiar spices. The Coronas is quite spicy, most probably from the oak, which typically imparts a vanilla and spice element. Yet curiously, there is also some spiciness in the totally unoaked Co~tes du Rho~ne, albeit of a different character, more black pepper than cinnamon or nutmeg, probably from the use of the peppery grenache grape.
Tannic: An astringent, puckery sensation in the mouth is caused by tannin, which is found in grape skins. Tannins give a wine structure and aging ability, but can mask the fruit in a young wine. Both the Co~tes du Rho~ne and the Coronas have rather light tannins, which allows them to be drunk without the need for further aging. An good example of a tannic wine would be a young Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet. Flight No. 2, Whites The wines: Clos du Bois 1988 "Barrel Fermented" Chardonnay ($10; Alexander Valley); Ma~con Ige' 1989 "Domaine Des Roches" ($7-$8; France)
Buttery: The compound that gives some wines, generally chardonnay and white Burgundy, the taste of butter is called phenacetyl and is actually found in butter. The Clos du Bois has this as a result of having gone through malolactic, or secondary, fermentation, a traditional Burgundy technique. Ironically, the Ma~con Ige', which is from Burgundy, was not put through malolactic fermentation, and lacks this element entirely.
Crisp: Whether one uses the term zesty, tart or lively, crispness refers to the often misunderstood concept of acidity. While acidity brings to mind unpleasant images of car batteries and the like to some, good acidity is an essential component of a good wine, especially a white wine. Fortunately, both of these wines have good acidity, which is evident as a tart, somewhat lemony quality, particularly noticeable in the aftertaste.
Flinty: A tangy, mineral taste that usually comes from soils high in chalk is described as flinty. The Ma~con Ige' is quite flinty for a Ma~con, particularly in the bouquet, and seems almost like a Chablis in this regard. The Clos du Bois has a much sweeter, floral and butterscotch bouquet, with no apparent flintiness.
Yeasty: If a wine is left in contact with the lees (yeasty sediment) following fermentation, it picks up a doughy taste that may call to mind champagne. The Clos du Bois was left on the lees for six months following fermentation in oak barrels, lending it a strong yeasty component. The Ma~con Ige', which was fermented in stainless steel, displays little or no yeastiness, and was probably drawn off its lees shortly after fermentation. Some prefer the richness imparted by yeastiness. Others may just as soon enjoy the direct fruitiness of the Ma~con Ige'.
Ben Giliberti is a Washington freelancer who writes regularly about wine.