Conversing with an oenophile shouldn’t require a translator
By Josh Perilo
“Just tell me how it tastes,” The Doctor said, cutting me off before I launched into my usual exuberant spiel. “And avoid words that have more than three syllables.”
The Doctor was one of our regulars at the wine store. He could be somewhat annoying, in that he only came in for the free tasting every day and never actually purchased anything. You could, however, always rely on him for blunt honesty. If he didn’t like something, he let you know.
“This tastes like crap,” he said, tossing the plastic cup into the trash. “And no matter what fancy words you use to describe it, it’ll still taste like crap.”
He was right! If there was one thing I learned from The Doctor, it was that winespeak can be just a smokescreen for wine professionals to explain away a bad wine or make a mediocre wine sound better than it actually is.
The fact of the matter is that winespeak, when used correctly, can actually be helpful. The terms used to describe a lot of wine’s characteristics are very specific and if conveyed in an unpretentious way, can illuminate rather than confuse.
One term that is constantly used (and overused) to describe red wines that are more Old World in style is earthy. Does this mean that the wine is going to taste like a handful of soil? Probably not. What it does mean, however, is that if you are looking for a wine that tastes primarily of big fruit flavors, this wine is not going to be for you. “Earthy” usually implies a complexity of flavor that can include fruit flavor, but does not put the emphasis on it. Other flavor notes and smells that are reminiscent of non-food items like pipe tobacco, cedar and smoke often go hand in hand with the term earthy. These are wines that tend to be better with food, generally speaking.
On the other hand, when you hear a sommelier use the term jammy, you can pretty much expect the opposite of earthy. The word jammy evokes a big jar of strawberry preserves to me—and that’s pretty much what it means. A jammy wine is going to be less complex, and the main event will be the fruit flavors. Jammy also tends to connote darker fruit flavors that have a concentrated taste. Strawberry preserves, again, is a good example, as is baked blueberry and stewed fruit flavors.
That brings us to another term that is closely related to jammy, but has its own nuance: fruit forward. A wine that is fruit forward simply means that the first flavor you taste when the wine hits your tongue is fruit. Therefore, a jammy wine can be fruit forward, but a complex wine that has more than just fruit flavor to offer can also be fruit forward. The flavor of the wine changes as it runs from the front of your palate to the back, so a wine that starts fruity may end tannic or spicy.
Perhaps the term that is the most often misunderstood and misused is dry. This term is misused because most people think of the term “dry” as subjective. It is not. Dryness in wine specifically has to do with the amount of residual sugar once a wine is bottled and ready to drink. It has nothing to do with the perceived fruity flavors of a wine, which is the common misperception. For example, a wine that is low in acidity and very fruit forward, like a Viognier made in a warm climate, may come across as less dry than an oaky Chardonnay from California. The truth of the matter, however, is that the Viognier is most likely much more dry, as it is a common practice in many oaky California Chardonnays to leave some residual sugar to balance out the oak flavor. Even though the Viognier tastes less dry because of the fruit flavors, it is not.
Understanding the basic terms that are thrown around by wine professionals can not only help you find the type of wine you are looking for, but sort out the treasures from the chaff.