11 Aug

Become a  Wine Expert with just 10 Minutes of Study!

Richard J Palermino

What if I say that I can save you years of study and thousands of dollars in drinking fees or should I say “lab fees”?  Have you ever wondered how those wine guys acquire such  an extensive vocabulary in describing a wine.  How words just trip off their palate with the ease of drinking a bottle of 1927 Margaux?   

Phrases like “hints of butterscotch with a backbone of chocolate”  or “a charming,  off-dry style with feature notes of wild herb and licorice …”.  Do they attend “wine school”?  Are they inherently more wine wise than you?  Were they born with more refined tastes than you? Are they inherent snobs?  Have they talked so much about wine that they are more practiced and familiar with wine talk?  Have they simply had more experience and drunk more than you? 

Or maybe they are better with colorful language with a more flamboyant turn of phrase? Maybe they memorized the wine aroma list I am about to present? Not necessarily any of the above possible explanations need be the case.  

Often Knowledge Is Helped By Simple Organizing Your Thoughts

Facility with wine talk is important to their professional standing and it is not often haphazard knowledge.  In the better experts it is more often a simple matter of approaching wine, like anything you want to get good at, in a disciplined way.   

Key to this is organization of one’s thoughts in buckets or categories.  Let’s get you started on the road to describing wine more than saying it tastes “good”.

Take the issue of wine aromas which we will focus on today.  Without complicating things too much, we will focus today on the University of California at Davis's Wine Aroma Wheel.  I will deconstruct it to a form that will make it a little easier to understand. 

It will allow you to organize your comments into categories that will truly seem logical. Soon you will not be just saying the wine tastes “good” but maybe  “nutty” and will specify walnut? hazelnut? almond? If you picked up on nuttiness in the aroma, you certainly can identify which of the three common aromas of wine it is.  You can do it, I know you can!  

Start with organizing your thoughts with a starting point and a basic theme:  choose a major one to begin.  These are the basic areas under which you will organize your thoughts:



Say the first thing that occurs to you about a wine is aromas of Caramel?  Instantly you have Honey or Butterscotch or Butter or Soy Sauce or Chocolate or Molasses to choose from.  It is sort of like a thesaurus of wine?   Maybe the first impression is Spicy?  Then you will have Licorice or Clover or Black Pepper to choose from.  Start with one or two categories at first with 3 sub headings  in each like Nutty and Spicy.   That means six things to keep in your head to choose from after the generic “good”.  Already you are on your way  … You’ll get the hang of it.  Start with little steps before taking big steps.

Try index cards like in school

You could make index cards of flash cards as you were taught to do in grammar school to organize your thoughts, one card per category given below in bold print.  That means 11 cards.  Or you can make a sheet organized as Heading I. then subheading I.A. listing on that card all the things that pertain to that one listing.  

So a separate card for Caramel, separate card for Spicy etc.  Whichever you find easiest.  Remember, once equipped with the vocabulary, there will be no stopping you from sounding like you know what you are talking about!  In the short term, this will be your cheat sheet.

Definitely Start by Mastering a Few of the Topics

For ease of presentation in a Blog Post, I am going to present them here in the second way I suggested.  This a lot to absorb so start as I said above with two categories at first, maybe Nutty and Spicy.

I. Caramel

II.  Spicy

III.  Fruity

IV.  Floral

V.  Oxidized

VI.  Earthy

VII.  Woody

VIII.  Chemical

IX.  Pungent

X.  Vegetative

XI.  Microbiological

XII.  Nutty

Ok, now we are ready to proceed.

I.  Caramel

        A.  Honey

        B.  Butterscotch

        C. Butter

        D. Soy Sauce

        E. Chocolate

        F.  Molasses

II.  Spicy

        A.   Licorice (anise)

        B.   Black Pepper

        C.   Cloves

III.  Fruity

        A. Citrus

                 1.  Grapefruit

                 2.  Lemon

        B. Berry

                 1.  Blackberry

                 2.  Raspberry 

                 3.  Strawberry

                 4.  Black Currant (Cassis)

       C.  Tree Fruit

                1.  Cherry

                2.  Apricot

                3.   Peach

                4.  Apple

       D.  Tropical Fruit

                1.  Pineapple

                2.  Melon

                3.  Banana

      E. Dried Fruit

                 1.  Strawberry Jam

                  2.  Raisin

                  3.  Prune

                  4.  Fig

      F.  Other

                   1.  Artificial fruit

                   2.  Methyl anthranilate (Concord grapey smell)

 IV.   Floral 

      A.  Geranium

       B.  Violet

       C.  Rose

       D.  Orange Blossom

 V.   Oxidised

       A.  Sherry

VI.  Earthy

       A.  Moldy

                  2.  Moldy wine

                  3.  Moldy cork

      B.  Earthy

                 1. Mushroom

                 2. Dusty

VII.  Woody

      A.  Burned

                 1.  Smokey

                 2.  Burnt toast

                 3.  Coffee

      B.  Phenolic

                 1.  Medicinal

                 2.  Phenolic compounds

                 3.  Bacon

       C.  Resinous      

                 1. Oak

                 2. Cedar

                 3. Vanilla

VIII.  Chemical

      A.   Pungent

                 1.  Sulfur dioxide

                 2.  Ethanol

                 3.  Acetic acid

                 4.  Ethyl acetate

      B.  Sulfur 

                1.  Wet wool, wet dog

                2.  Sulfur dioxide

                3.  Burnt match

                4.  Cabbage

                5.  Skunk

                6.  Garlic

                7.  Natural gas, mercaptan

                8.  Hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg)

                9.  Rubbery

      C.   Petroleum

                1.  Diesel

                2.  Kerosene

                3.  Plastic

                4. Tar    

IX.  Pungent   

      A.  Cool

               1.  Menthol

      B.  Hot

               1.  Alcohol (noticeable)

X.  Vegetative

       A.  Fresh

                1.  Cut green grass

                2.  Bell pepper

                3.  Eucalyptus

                4.  Mint

       B.  Canned/cooked

                1.  Green beans

                2.  Asparagus

                3.  Green olive

                4.  Black olive

                5.  Artichoke

       C.  Dried

                 1.  Hay/straw

                 2.  Tea

                 3.  Tobacco  

XI.  Microbiological

        A.  Yeasty

                1.  Smell of lees

                2.  Baker’s yeast

        B.  Lactic 

                1.  Yoghurt

                2.  Sweaty

                3.  Sauerkraut

        C.  Other

              1.  Horsey

              2.  Mousey

XII.  Nutty

       A.   Walnut

       B.   Hazelnut

       C.   Almond


You Might Not Want to Describe a Wine as Mousey!

Whew,  took me a long time to type it all.  Please do not take it you have to memorize them all…. Wine professionals don’t, why should you?   Also, I know I have never myself described a wine as “mousey” although one reviewer did years ago.

I repeat, it was only one!  Also bear in mind that everyone’s palate is different.  I remember a reviewer describing a wine as having “hints of strawberry” whereas I tasted ‘cherry.”   

That is exactly why you should not be intimidated by wine reviews.  Where you should be careful is describing a wine in public just as “good” and not saying why you find it good?  Your opinion on wine is just as valid as the next person but you will help your opinions greatly if you put a little meat on that bone.

True, sometimes it is very useful to have this knowledge.  Once I was in a blind tasting at Kendall-Jackson Winery.  There were 13 chardonnays which were all competitive to ours.  The tasting was being conducted by Jess Jackson who owned the winery and it was our task, among the many, to choose ours from the others.  

At that time they used mostly tepusquet vineyard (subsequently Cambria Vineyards)  in the blend.  Tropical fruit flavors are a hallmark of that region and that vintage the pineapple favors particularly stood out.  Like a bingo player I raised my hand and said, correctly, glass number 5 is ours, and noted its tropical fruit flavors particularly pineapple. 

In this case being able to think like a wine guy impressed the boss, but you might want to impress your date, spouse, or friends, in a nice sort of way.

Use your newfound knowledge for good

These aromas can occur in certain varietals more than in others, certain localities (appellations) more than in others, certain wine making practices more than others, the possibilities are endless.  This blog post is only to get you started heading in the right direction.  

For instance, it is very helpful to know that a typical aroma of the grape cabernet sauvignon is bell pepper.   Or that California chardonnays, for example,  fall into general flavor profiles depending on where they are from.  Santa Barbara's already noted famous tropical fruit flavors, Russian River Valley's ripe apple flavors, Monterey's lemon and lime,  and Carneros's  pear overtones that rule.  

 Maybe this wine thing is not so complicated after all?  Wouldn’t you find this information helpful to know -- it sort of gives you a little assurance, shall we say anticipation or even confidence?  Or that a wine that is getting over the hill has a sherry-like smell.   

Maybe, on the other hand,  Jacques was heavy handed in his wine making resulting in a odor of hydrogen sulfide gas (rotten egg smell).  I feel good that you now have the ability to nail down your wines as well as the next person at that tasting   You have started on the path to a better understanding of wine.  I only ask that you use your new found powers for good!

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