Grandma’s musty closet. The mist that rises off sea foam after a wave crashes onto the beach. Unripe pineapple rind that has been dunked into sweetened iced tea. The wet soil on top of a freshly picked button mushroom.
What are we talking about? Well, wine, of course! These descriptions are just a few we’ve heard used to describe wine (go ahead and giggle—we can assure you that we do!), and while we’re envious that some people have such gifted noses/palates, not everyone does. Describing wine is difficult for many of us, so you can imagine how intimidated we were when we were first learning how to do it—while one of our peers was finding over-baked, Golden Delicious apples with cinnamon and crispy, buttery crumbles on top, we were struggling just to find “apple.”
But we quickly learned that describing wine really isn’t so scary. It just takes fundamental knowledge, an understanding of what to look for, and lots of practice. If you’ve been following our wine fundamentals series, you know that viticulture techniques affect the flavor profile of a wine, that aging wine in oak barrels imparts flavors that aging in stainless steel tanks doesn’t, and that Old World wines will likely have more minerality than New World wines. So you already know some of the characteristics to look for! To that fundamental knowledge, let’s add a simple formula we use when describing wine. It’s called FEW: Fruit, Earth, and Wood.
To describe any wine you must first begin with the fruit, which means both actual fruits and non-fruits. While there are no hard and fast rules for doing this, we learned how to describe fruit based on the Court of Master Sommeliers’ guidelines, which breaks down fruits and non-fruits into specific categories. The four fruit categories in white wine are apple/pear, stone fruit, citrus fruit, and tropical fruit and the four fruit categories for red wine are black fruit, red fruit, blue fruit, and “other” fruit. For both white and red wine the four non-fruit categories are flowers, spices, herbs, and “other.” Here are some simple charts to give you examples of what these categories refer to:
Now, for newbies to this process, there’s no need to get fancy. Simply start by looking for basic fruits such as apple, peach, lemon, or pineapple. Once you get comfortable distinguishing one category of fruit from another, you can then dig deeper to determine the specific kind of fruit you’re tasting/smelling within each category. For example, if you’ve determined that you smell apple in a white wine, is it a tart, green apple or is it a ripe, red apple? The same goes for non-fruits. If you think a wine smells floral, for example, is it light like honeysuckle, or more fragrant like red roses? If it’s fragrant like red roses, are the roses freshly cut, or more like dried rose petals in potpourri? And if you think a wine smells herbal, is it light and sweet like fresh tarragon, or heavier and more savory like dried rosemary?
After determining the fruit notes in wine, next you look for earth. The three earth categories are stone/mineral, earth/soil, and little/none. As you know, earth elements are more often found in Old World wines because of their emphasis on terroir, but they can be found in any wine depending on its style. Here’s another simple chart to describe some of the things that earth refers to:
Wood refers to the flavors that come from oak barrel fermentation or aging. The two most common types of oak used in winemaking are French oak and American oak, both of which impart different aromas/flavors to the wine. French oak tends to offer hints of baking spices, while American oak is known to impart flavors like coconut or dill. When describing wine we simply determine if there’s oak or no oak, with descriptors such as the following:
HOW DO I START?
OK, so now that we’ve described what to look for in order to describe wine, you’re probably wondering, “How in the world do I do this?!” Well, the answer is pretty simple: smell everything. Believe it or not, about 75% of wine descriptions come from smelling it. What you taste actually comes from the aromas you pick up through your nose, not your tongue, so training your nose to decipher aromas is the key to tasting wine. The tasting part is basically just to confirm or contradict what you’ve smelled!
So when you’re grocery shopping, stop and smell the fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables in the produce section. When you’re cooking or baking, smell every ingredient as you add it. When you’re walking down the street, stop and smell the flowers in your neighbor’s yard. It may sound silly, but the more you smell, the more likely you’ll be able to identify specific aromas/flavors in your wine, and the more aromas/flavors you can identify, the more familiar they will become on your palate.
It’s also very important to note that everyone’s nose and palate is unique, so there’s a lot of subjectivity when it comes to describing wine. Yes, there are certain benchmarks to look for in each varietal (like apples in Chardonnay or cherries in Pinot noir), but what you smell and taste in wine can also be influenced by where you grew up or what you’re used to eating and drinking. (We do: for example, Mel often finds tropical fruits like guava and papaya because she comes from a Latino background and grew up with those aromas, while Allie tends to pick up fruits like peaches or spices like oregano due to growing up in Georgia and eating lots of pasta with her Italian family over the years.) What you identify with is unique to you—the important thing is having the courage to say what you think without worrying about being right or wrong.
So the next time you order or pour a glass of wine, take a minute to remember the fundamentals you’ve learned and to focus on FEW. Start with simple descriptors and then get more detailed over time by smelling everything around you and trying to identify what you smell whenever you drink wine. Before you know it, you might be finding the aroma of grandma’s musty closet in your wine!
Allison Albanese has worked in the finance industry for the last seven years as Director of Investor Relations for a hedge fund in NYC. She is also the founder of Parched: NYC, a website launching soon that is dedicated to all things cocktail, wine and beverage-related in NY. Allison is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Advanced Sommelier certification.
Melissa Diaz has spent over 12 years working in the media industry and is currently the Consumer Insights Director at Parade Media Group. Prior to joining Parade she worked at the New York Times in Advertising Market Research. Melissa is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Advanced Sommelier certification.
For questions about Allie & Mel Uncorked, please contact Allison and Melissa at [email protected].