Columnist, Food

Describing wines might be the hardest part of writing about them. (Instants/Getty Images)

A reader emailed a few weeks ago to complain about — or perhaps make fun of — the way I describe wines.

Having recently retired, Joel Darmstadter, of Chevy Chase, Md., said he was trying to catch up on the pleasures of life, including “wines not nearly appreciated to the extent guaranteed.” But he was having trouble. “Take, for example, (your) recent description of a Spanish red that ‘shows deep flavors of black fruit, tobacco leaf and mushrooms,’ ” he wrote. “It’s precisely my inability to credibly and with smooth sophistication discuss such impressions with companions or dinner guests that prompts this plea and need for self-improvement. In the case at hand, I tried to find a nearby outlet for tobacco leaf, but, unsuccessful in that effort, substituted endive instead. Might that explain the resultant letdown in my unremarkable taste experience?”

Joel then expressed bemusement over my description of a “fun” wine, which he correctly guessed is the opposite of a serious one.

Describing wines is — to me, at least — the toughest part of writing about them. I enjoy telling the story of a wine, the people who make it and the land where it was grown, its role in history or culture. I don’t join other wine writers who compete to discern the most flavors out of a wine. Because what it tastes like is, ultimately, subjective. A wine’s flavor at any given moment is an interaction between the liquid and the taster, and all sorts of factors influence that interaction. What makes me think of tobacco leaf might remind you of tea or olives. That’s why sommeliers suggest describing the body or structure of wines you like, rather than specific flavors. Those characteristics we can usually agree on.

So how to decode my descriptions? The wine that had Joel scratching his head was the Protos ’27 2014 from Ribera del Duero, Spain, which I gave three stars (“exceptional”) in January. “Deep flavors of black fruit” suggest a fairly substantial (deep) wine that tastes like blackberries, black currants or dark cherries. It’s probably from a warmer climate; red fruit flavors (strawberries, raspberries) suggest cooler growing areas for red grapes. For tobacco leaf, an unsmoked cigar would be a better reference point than an endive. (Tobacco is also my personal marker for tempranillo, a major red grape in Spain and Portugal.) The mushroom indicates a savory, umami character.

I try to give clues about a wine’s structure and body. “Rich” or “powerful” signal a bigger wine, while “lithe” or “refreshing” indicate wines with noticeable acidity. “Ripe” or “jammy” should lead you to expect sweet flavors. For example, I recently described the Stillman St. Chardonnay 2016 from Sonoma County as “good, straightforward chardonnay, rich with stone fruit flavors, [and] just a little bit of influence from older oak barrels.” Expect that wine to have some weight, as chardonnay should. It might also remind you of peaches or apricots. But don’t expect it to taste at all like the “delicate, gossamer” Roero Arneis 2016 from Fratelli Rabino in Italy’s Piemonte.

When I started paying attention to wine, I also became more aware of the scents and flavors in the world around me. Now whenever I see a honeysuckle bush, I get thirsty for Viognier. Smell everything, taste with discretion. That way, when your francophile friend says a sauvignon blanc tastes like “pipi de chat,” you’ll know what she means.

I sought insight on how wine has been described through the centuries from an old dog-eared book of quotes about wine. But the poets of old and even more recently were interested less in wine’s flavors than its effects. They extolled its ability to cheer or heal us, help us escape the travails of daily life and, of course, promote romance. Pliny found truth in wine, while Hemingway found company. Our obsession with finding a fruit basket is a recent phenomenon spurred on by wine magazines and the need to make some sense out of all the different labels we have to choose from.

And maybe we’ve lost something by focusing too narrowly on wine’s flavors. As M.F.K. Fisher wrote, in a preface to the “University of California Sotheby Book of California Wine”: “Wine is life, and my life and wine are inextricable. And the saving grace of all wine’s many graces, probably, is that it can never be dull. It is only the people who try to sing about it who may sound flat. But wine is an older thing than we are, and is forgiving of even the most boring explanation of its élan vital.”