One of the nice things about wine is its infinite variety, and the diversity of opinion brought to it. Wine drinking is one of the last redoubts of the ardent individualist, as well as being great fun. But few things are more frustrating--and occasionally enraging--for the beginner than encountering terms used by wine writers that seem mannered, or incomprehensible. The budding enophile can accept the terms dry, sweet, light, fruity, smoky, spicy, peppery, and even briary and grassy. But can a wine from the Loire, for instance, really conjure up new-mown hay? Why does the expert's lexicon seem to lead the reader directly into lunch, where red wines are plummy, berryish, apricoty and even chewy? Whites are buttery, pineapply, have overtones of honey, and are meaty. A white bordeaux suggests magnolia blossoms to a (southern?) writer, butterscotch to another. Thus the wine-feast includes the floral arrangement and dessert, followed by, yes, a wine redolent of a cigar box.
In fact, the language of wine tasting is fairly standardized. "These terms are long established in France," says Gerald Asher, who writes a wine column for Gourmet magazine. "Sometimes the translations are meaningful, sometimes not. In French, nerveux suggests a wine with chords running through it, a strong wine. But the English, 'nervous' suggests a shrinking violet." Butterscotch, he says, is a "nouveau California term. What the writer is really saying is that the wine has an element of butter in it, and that it has been aged in barrels with toasted staves that give it a rich character." Asher usually begins his discussion of a wine with color and aroma, then weight and alcoholic content (warmth), the wine's relation to its origin, and the balance among acid, tannin and residual sweetness. "Only then do I start talking about black currants, and so on."
Taste is limited to four elements: sweet, sour, bitter and salt. The rest is pure association, hence the need for what may seem like bizarre comparisons. A wine snob's association isn't necessarily better than a beginner's. "If a wine smells like raspberries, fine," says Elliot Staren, wine consultant at MacArthur's. "And if it smells like burnt tires, that's fine, too." If a customer tells him that a white wine tastes "sour," Staren may recommend something less dry, a chenin blanc or a vouvray. "If he says a wine smells like burnt matches, that means too much sulfur. Instead of a white bordeaux I'll recommend a chardonnay, or a sauvignon blanc. If it tastes like old socks, I tell them to let the wine breathe longer."
"If one can taste food, one can taste wine," Michael Broadbent writes in his pocket guide, Wine Tasting, which I recommend (Simon & Schuster, $5.95). "Generally speaking, what is good smells and tastes good; what smells 'off' and has a nasty taste is bad. I believe this is the reason for most people being able, correctly, to place one wine better than another simply on the basis that it tastes or smells nicer . . . It is all a matter of taste and experience." To experience I would like to add memory, that ineffable component residing somewhere between the olfactory nerves, the taste buds and the temporal lobe.
Meanwhile, a group of researchers in England works on reducing all smells and tastes to 30 categories, which sounds like a dreadful idea. The only thing worse than describing wine too whimsically is to be bound by scientific edict. Remember the simple advertising slogan on the side of a delivery van, which read: Wine Is Good!