"There's just one thing I don't get," said one of my wine students recently. "Wine tastes like cherries, apples, pears, even pomegranates. How come it almost never tastes like grapes?"
It was a great question. It's ironic that wine ― which by nature ought to taste like grapes ― usually doesn't. Instead, it can taste like all sorts of unexpected things, from leather boots to pineapple.
In part, the reason lies in the mind-bendingly complex process of fermentation, when all kinds of chemical transformations take place. Many compounds we know in other contexts are created. Diacetyl, for example, the compound that makes butter taste buttery, can be created. And if it is, the wine literally tastes buttery.
Wine, in fact, seems to have no vocabulary of its own; we use the language of food, nature, even fabrics. A wine can be raspberrylike, earthy, or silky ― or (as in the case of many Pinot Noirs) all three.
That said, there are terms used by just about everybody to describe wine.
BODY. Wines are described as light-bodied or full-bodied, depending on how heavy they are on your tongue. Imagine, for example, the relative weights of skim milk, whole milk, and half-and-half. Light-bodied, medium-bodied, and full-bodied wines correspond. But don't confuse body with flavor intensity. A wine can be light-bodied yet extremely intense in flavor the way a sorbet is.
COMPLEXITY. A complex wine has multiple layers of flavors and aromas. Each sip reveals something you didn't notice before. Complex wines are more fascinating than their opposites ― simple wines.
EARTHINESS. Earthy describes a range of flavors and aromas, from soil to mushrooms and truffles. Professional wine tasters also use the word when comparing the aroma of a wine to the sweet, slightly sweaty smell of the human body. Pinot Noirs tend to be earthy.
FRESHNESS. A wine that tastes clean and lively is often described as fresh, a sense that often stems from its natural acidity. A wine with too little acidity frequently tastes bland and dull, or flabby.
FRUIT. Fruity means simply that the wine has pronounced flavors or aromas of fruit. Some wines ― usually unexpressive ones like Pinot Grigio ― aren't particularly fruity. On the other hand, Gewürztraminer, Gamay (the grape in beaujolais), Zinfandel, and California Riesling all can be very fruity.
LENGTH. Long wines have flavors that linger in your mouth even after you've swallowed (these end-run flavors are called the wine's finish). A long finish is one of the hallmarks of a great wine.
TANNIN. A compound found in grape skins, tannin gives wine a firm structure ― its skeleton. It also acts as a preservative, helping wine age gracefully. Red wine, which is fermented with skins, has more tannin than white wine, which is fermented without skins. Unfortunately, if red grapes are picked before they're fully ripe, their tannin can make the wine bitter and astringent. But if the grapes are picked ripe, the tannin creates a good structure; the wine does not taste dry and astringent.
TOAST. Many wines that have been fermented and/or aged in new oak barrels take on a toasty character not unlike that of buttered toast. The reason: during the barrelmaking process, the oak staves are toasted over fire to make them more malleable. While many wine drinkers like some toastiness (especially in Chardonnay), wines that taste exclusively of toast are poorly made.
WINES FOR THE WORDS
Here are some wines that define the terms discussed here particularly well.
Light-bodied: Waterbrook Sauvignon Blanc 1997 (Columbia Valley, WA), $12. Beautifully light, almost evanescent.
Full-bodied: Beringer Chardonnay 1997 (Napa Valley), $16. Round and creamy ― positively buxom.
Complex: Qupé "Los Olivos Cuvee" 1996 (Santa Barbara County), $18. A fascinating, multilayered blend of Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Grenache.
Earthy: Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir 1996 (Napa Valley), $20. Primordially dark ― the forest floor.
Fresh: Covey Run Fumé Blanc 1996 (Columbia Valley), $7. Bright, fresh, and lemony. Very easy to pair with food.
Fruity: Beaulieu Zinfandel 1996 (Napa Valley), $12. Like boysenberry jam.
Long: Long Vineyards Chardonnay 1997 (Napa Valley), $35. Elegant crème brûlée and vanilla flavors that just don't end.
Tannic: Markham Merlot 1996 (Napa Valley), $20. Ripe tannins give this wine impressive structure.
Toasty: Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay 1997 (Sonoma County), $12. Full and yeasty, with opulent toasty overtones.
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Bookwalter Chenin Blanc 1998 (Columbia Valley, WA), $7. Possibly the best Chenin Blanc in America, at an unbelievable price! Lovely peach and mineral flavors; perfect balance and elegance.
Karen MacNeil-Fife teaches wine classes at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley.