Vinetalkers: Riddle of the Wine Review

The Riddle

I don’t know about you, but the first time I ever read an expert wine review, I was mystified.  Some of it I understood, certainly.  But the rest of it was like a riddle – a coded message full of strange words and hidden meanings.  Yet here’s the thing: no matter how opaque or mysterious they seemed, I wanted more.  I wanted to gain access to the information they held.  I wanted to crack the code and solve the mysteries within.  I still do.

Deciphering the Message

While I haven’t yet made a complete breakthrough on cracking the code, I have made some progress.  The first thing I had to come to terms with was the heavy use of foreign language in the reviews.  I was OK with that, actually.  I studied languages in school, so facing down a new foreign word can even be enjoyable to me.  I also understand that wine production and therefore wine reviewing have been going on much longer in a primarily non-English environment.  So I get that there are terms which have been developed for the purpose of describing a wine in French or Italian, let’s say, that may be more insightful than any in the English language.  I just have to find a good dictionary to help me.

A smattering of foreign words and phrases encountered in recent reviews include — sous-bois, bresada, pastis, garrigue, kirsch, pâtes de fruits, fleur de sel, fines herbes, and sanguine.  [See below for discussions of the terms printed in dark lavender throughout this post]

Next were the strictly wine-related terms that I needed to understand in order to get a better grasp on these coded messages.  For example, I’ve seen words like leesy and grip bandied about.  But with some reading and a bit more understanding into how wines are made, these kinds of terms can be deciphered, too.

Cherimoya by Hannes Grobe

Then came the names of stuff I’d never heard of.  I’m talking about fruits, vegetables and herbs with flavors and aromas that I hadn’t any clue about.  Luckily, we have the internet today that can help us more quickly research these items, even if we can’t immediately get our hands on the real thing to fully comprehend what’s being described.  I’m talking about items like cherimoya, green plum, bergamot, etc.  It isn’t as if these items can’t be found, but most aren’t in everyone’s local market.

Darker Mysteries

Add to that some mystifyingly imprecise or “blurry” terminology.  I’ve seen, for example, a review which described a selection as “a pure red.”  Is that as opposed to a polluted red?  Or not a sinful red?  And better yet, I ran across a reviewer calling a particular wine “a vinous version.” Given that vinous means “of, pertaining to, or characteristic of wine,” you’d think every single bottle of wine made is a vinous version.

Hidden Meaning?

So just what is it these reviewers are saying?  I’m not sure.  I haven’t found the key to translate these yet.  I feel, though, as I gain more experience and knowledge in the world of wine, I may be able to venture a guess.

And that brings me to the most intriguing and disconcerting of all the descriptors.  I’ll call them DMWRT (Dark Mysteries of Wine Review Terminology).  The DMWRTs continue to befuddle me completely.  Take the wine review that listed road tar as a key flavor.  Not just tar, road tar.  Which begs the question, “Where has that reviewer’s tongue been to come up with a flavor like that?”  Others I’d put in the DMWRT category include (but are not limited to) clean earth, hot stone, crushed granite, and underbrush.  These were all used as flavors – not scents, flavors.  But you know what?  I’m not the expert; I’m a wine enthusiast.  So I’ll bet those flavors are there.  After all, I’m only drinking inexpensive wines, and I haven’t received the extensive training that the wine pros have.  Maybe I should stop sitting here being mystified and get busy   . . .   licking on some road tar, sucking on crushed granite, and chewing sprigs of underbrush.  Then again, perhaps some things are better left a mystery.

Caveat Humoris

If you’ve made it this far, I have to thank you for sticking with this post.  And I hope you have taken it in the spirit in which it is intended – a bit of edification, a tad of information, and lots of entertainment (i.e. humor).  I don’t know what I’d do without the wine professionals out there writing their reviews and helping me find my way through a world of wine choices.  The service they provide is invaluable.  While I admit that I don’t always understand them, I do keep reading them – growing, learning and benefiting from them.  And, of course, I myself post my own tasting notes here on this blog.  What is it they say about pointing a finger?  One at you and three pointing back at me?

MWWC

This post is a response to the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge.  Begun by wine blogger extraordinaire the drunken cyclist, a theme/subject is picked each month for all those participating to use.   Once the entries are in, they are voted on by  wine blog readers, and the baton is passed to the winning blogger.  He or she is responsible for choosing the theme for and administrating the next month’s challenge.  This is the 6th such challenge: the theme is Mystery.  If you haven’t already done so, head over to the MWWC blog and check out the previous challenges.  Enter into the fray by January 13 if you also blog about wine and have a mind to.  And don’t forget to vote for your favorite Mystery post beginning January 14!

Terms

bergamot — is a small citrus tree, Citrus Bergamia, having fruit whose rind yields a fragrant essential oil but which is not considered edible.  The oil is used widely in perfumes and in some cases as a flavoring.  Bergamot oil has a scent which is citrusy, bitter and sour, reminiscent of eau de Cologne (the original cologne, 4711 or Kölnisches Wasser).  The oil is also used to flavor Earl Grey tea.

bresada — The word “bresada” means braised in Italian.  Since I don’t think braised works as a specific flavor or scent, I looked further.  Etymologically, the term braseola seems to have originated from the word “bresada” and is an Italian antipasto dish consisting of dried, salted and sliced beef (from the top round part of the animal).  I think this is what the term bresada in a wine review is meant to conjure.  I’ll readily admit that I’m not certain about this one.  If you have some clarification on this, please leave a comment.

cherimoya — The cherimoya is the fruit of the species Annona cherimola which is generally thought to be native to the Andes.  The fruit is fleshy and soft, sweet, white in color, with a sherbet-like texture, giving it its secondary name, custard apple.  Some characterize the flavor as a blend of banana, pineapple, papaya, peach, and strawberry.  Others describe it as tasting like bubblegum.

French Dictionary

fines herbes — Fines herbes is a combination of herbs that forms a mainstay of Mediterranean cuisine.  The ingredients of fines herbes are fresh parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil.

fleur de sel — is a hand-harvested sea salt collected by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans.  Fleur de sel has more mineral complexity than common table salt.

garrigue — Garrigue is a French term denoting a type of low, soft-leaved scrubland ecoregion found on limestone soils around the Mediterranean Basin, generally near the seacoast.  And according to Dr. Vinny of The Wine Spectator, garrigue in a wine review – “refers to the low-growing vegetation on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast, not the limestone itself.  There are a bunch of bushy, fragrant plants that grow wild there, such as juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender, and garrigue refers to the sum of them.  Think herbes de Provence, or a mix of fresh minty-herbal notes with more pungent, floral fragrances.”

green plum — Despite what it seems to suggest, this is not an unripe plum.  Prunus mume is an Asian tree species.  Its common names include Chinese plum and Japanese apricot.  Although generally referred to as a plum in English, it is more closely related to the apricot.

grip — has to do with the tannic acid in a wine and it’s effect on the taste buds – that sensation of pins and needles on your tongue.  The more intense the tannins, the more “grip” the wine has.

kirsch — Short for the German term Kirschwasser, it is a colorless, unaged brandy distilled from a fermented mash of cherries.  Kirsch = cherry; Wasser = water.  The cherries are fermented complete (that is, including their stones).  Kirschwasser is dry not sweet with subtle flavors of cherry and a slight bitter-almond taste that derives from the stones.

leesy —  Lees are the sediment at the bottom of a wine barrel or tank.  There are two kinds of lees – those that consist mostly of dead yeast cells and those made up of grape pulp, seed and other grape matter that accumulates during fermentation.  Allowing a wine to age on the lees or sur lie can add complex aromas and flavors to a wine.

pastis — is an anise-flavored liqueur from France.

pâtes de fruits — are French chewy candies with intense fruit taste made from purees of fresh fruit. To prepare them, fruit is boiled and cooked down with sugar to an extremely concentrated, almost jam-like consistency before being poured, cooled and cut into small squares and rolled in sugar.

sanguine — is short for l’orange sanguine and is the French term for a blood orange.

sous-bois — A French term to denote damp woods smells – the leaves rotting, an air of decomposing matter.  Think autumn walks in the woods after rainfall.

The Librarian Is In

The Reference Desk

Here is the list of informational sources I consulted and borrowed from when researching this post.

The Random House College Dictionary
Merriam Webster online
Wikipedia
Dr. Vinny at The Wine Spectator
ifood.tv
about.com
fragrantica.com
wineanorak.com
vinology.com
winemakersacademy.com
drinkrhone.com

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25 thoughts on “Vinetalkers: Riddle of the Wine Review

  1. I was tasting wine in Washington with my cousin. One of the tasting notes said “nicoise olives”, not just olives. We decided that was being a little too specific/pretentious. My cousin had just adopted a cat that her kids had named Chevy. After that, she started calling the cat Chevy Nicoise, because that made her a fancy cat. 🙂 This was very informative, thanks for helping those of us who aren’t experts understand things a little better. 🙂

    • Glad you liked the post. You know, sometimes the terms the reviewers use do seem overly specific. Still, it could bear some investigation. Might be the reviewer has found an easy way to say two things at the same time. Like the fleur de sel. It’s salt, but there are also minerals present. So saying fleur de sel means both salty and mineral flavors are present. Either way, I think it proved to be a great inspiration for the cat’s name. Chevy Nicoise! Now that’s a fancy cat! lol

      • I’m sure there is a difference among different types of olives. And your’e right, the word choice can convey a variety of meanings. Mostly, I’m happy there’s a cat out there with the name Chevy Nicoise. 😉 Thanks for your down to earth reviews. They help those of us who aren’t ready for nicoise olives in our tastings. 🙂

  2. Bravo, it is a great mystery trying to decipher some of the words that are used, and I do think we may all be guilty at times, but I have to admit, that while I have never licked the pavement that I can recall, I have had a wine that “road tar” is the perfect descriptor for the wine.

    • Thanks! I was afraid folks would be angry about this post. It’s all meant in good fun with a little info and encouragement as well. Yes, we may all be guilty of the DMWRTs. lol And I am always amazed at the fantastic variety of flavors that can be coaxed from a bunch of fermented grapes.

  3. Great post and so very true. Even to a French speaker some of the words are still obscure and can be confusing. And it’s so easy to fall into the jargon trap. I especially love your definition of “sous-bois” that I always have a hard time translating into English !

  4. Great post and I am certainly with you on this one! I have read far too many reviews that seem to have been written to show off the reviewers ability to identify odors and flavors than to provide any real information to others. Great glossary at the end as well!

  5. Thanks, I learned many new terms from the closing vocab. I suppose if I were reviewing wines regularly I would search for more and more specific terms to delineate characteristics – occupational hazard. One review I read last year used the term ‘feral minerality’ to describe a Sav Blanc, I’m still pondering that one.

    • I think you’re on to something. No doubt a reviewer desires to be as accurate as possible in describing each wine. Might even be a little competition among the reviewers as well. Feral minerality? Sounds interesting. Maybe that’s the point. lol

  6. Very interesting post and good interpretation of the theme. I am personally guilty of abusing some of the “earthiness”, “minerality” and “hot granite” terms in my reviews. In general, all of the descriptors in the review are supposed to explain how the wine taste like to someone who didn’t taste it. I think it is important to use simple words and simple descriptors the other people can relate to – if someone needs a dictionary to understand the words in the review, I think it is a problem, as it is hard to relate to the wine if you need a dictionary in hand… I lately prefer to appeal to more of the emotional descriptors such as “power”, “balance” and “harmony” – I think they convey the message better…

    • Thanks! Even I use earthy and minerality in my wine tasting notes. lol I do agree with you that simple(r) descriptions can provide clearer communication than use of arcane and esoteric terminology. But as I said in the post, I also want to learn those terms as well. You’ve been trained and worked as a sommelier. No doubt you already know them!

  7. Pingback: Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #6—Update | the drunken cyclist

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  10. I love this! The wankiest tasting note I ever read was something along the lines of “flowering wild thyme, pear skin and a mineral lick”. Sometimes you do just think “In English please!”

  11. Awesome post – I also am puzzled by certain obscure descriptors that you get to read now and then. You made a great point and you expressed it in a very entertaining and elegant manner. Well done! 🙂

  12. Pingback: Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #6 (Mystery)–Time to Vote! | the drunken cyclist

  13. Interesting that I have rarely met many of these terms in reviews – maybe it’s just in the US that they like to befuddle? Correct me if I’m wrong!

    • Well, I can only say that I AM in the U.S. Of course, wine reviews strike me as being an international undertaking. Because my goal isn’t to kvetch about any particular reviewer, I’m loath to identify any of the various sources in which I found the terms mentioned other than to say they were all reviews in (mostly) English. lol As the drunken cyclist suggested, perhaps these are used not so much to befuddle as to impress.

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