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Rolfe Hanson

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Let's Talk Wine

Posted: 12/11/2012 1:25 pm

Haunting, persistent aromas of road tar, with unmistakable hints of Moroccan cured olives and high tones of leather and dark fruits on the back-end.

I'm not describing your great-grandfather's den. In contemporary wine writing, a description like this is easy to find.

Consumers and tradespeople alike lean on bullet-style wine reviews for guidance. We're excited when writers assign 95 points to the bottles we've bought on the cheap. We bristle to discover the red blend from Napa described as a "must-buy" is nowhere to be found in stores. We use vocabulary relevant to us and discard the rest.

Themes and phrases eventually repeat in wine essays. Some of the expressions are clear and to the point; they enhance our wine experience and provide a thoughtful framework for discussion. That's the stuff folks like before trips to the store.

But no matter how apt, wine remarks can become clichéd. As is the case with food, describing wine flavors and aromas can be tricky. The challenge -- for writers aiming for a wide range of readers -- seems to lie in crafting crisp descriptions not laden with insider jargon. Wine writing need not be esoteric.

What follows is a short list of overused phrases and ideas encountered in wine reviews and chatter. Writers, clerks, salespeople and sommeliers are the primary instigators. The words eventually sneak into our home table lexicon, and if we're not careful, elicit confused glances from our spouses and dining guests.

Familial wine comparisons. This wine is Grange junior. That one is a little Brunello. It's son-of-Opus, a step-daughter of Amarone. An example: Cotes du Rhone rouge is too often pinned as baby-Chateauneuf. Both wines are from the southern Rhone valley in France. Cotes du Rhone is often one-third the price of Chateauneuf du Pape, and while no less pleasurable, it's a different experience. Tasters may be unable to distinguish one wine from the other in a blind tasting; the wines are unique for reasons because of grape selection, places of origin and upbringing of the wine. Applying kin terminology has lost effectiveness because of overuse, and moreover, isn't the sure fit intended by promoters.

It really pops the mouth. This was fashionable in the recent past and, while on the wane, is still heard at gatherings. What does it really mean? That the wine tastes good? That the flavor suddenly expands in one's mouth? I've attended meetings where it was used extensively by participants and winery representatives, often to boost wines of non-distinction. Sometimes shortened to "It really pops." It's an example of a phrase which enters wine culture for a season or two, and then fades away.

Lift. Mid-palate lift; back-end lift; lifted flavors -- talk to folks who use this and you're likely to receive a number of explanations about how 'lift' fits into one's sensory experience. Lift may refer to just about anything you'd like, which serves to keep it mystical and giggle-producing. Our spirits and senses may be indeed lifted during a glass. Wine may transcend the last sip. A glassful can exhibit a raw or refined energy, alive and changing. There's no doubt certain writers can reasonably justify -- to their minds -- the use and meaning of lift. Whatever the intent, the reference comes off as obscure when applied to wine.

The use of specific varieties of fruit, vegetables and brands to describe wine. You say, "The wine smells and tastes of lemons." I say, "No, no, no; you mean Meyer lemon." "He experiences notes of strawberry in the Californian Pinot Noir," then she says, perhaps; "But it's clearly wild strawberry I'm getting out of this." I say "This mystery red is marked by aromas of rubber." You counter by noting that "The rubber is distinctively bike tire and decidedly Bontrager rubber -- as opposed to merely rubber of some other unknown origin." This can go on until cobwebs form between bottles. The not-so-subtle type of one-upmanship carries into the next item of discussion.

Over-describing. A good case can be made for simplifying wine talk. Those who have worked around wine know of writers, shop owners and spouses with palates and noses more intuitive than others. Many possess an uncanny knack of zeroing in on the essence of a wine, summing it up in a few brief remarks. Then there's another camp. Pushing the commonplace aside, this approach makes sure there's way more than anyone has ever smelled, tasted or experienced in a given glass or wine review.

The wine is 90 points- 'somebody.' In the business of wine, this is intended to be a stand-alone sales clincher. As a lead in -- or if all else fails -- it's routine to announce, "It's 90 points-" and then fill in the blank of a wine writer or of a prominent magazine after stating the word "points." Numerical tags reduce the wine to just a number and serve to under-describe wine. This style of promotion isn't likely to go away as it works wonders on sales and fits well with the American craving for product rankings. Consumers may wish -- over a glass of 93 point Zinfandel -- to understand that only a handful of individuals or committees are responsible for global wine ratings and what that implies. And maybe they don't.

Best between 2012-2062. Winemakers and tasters have guessed for centuries when optimum sipping pleasure will be reached with wine. We know there are a lot of variables in the way wine ages. Experts can agree on the aging curve of some wines. Most wine, as it tilts away from primary, juicy fruit power, becomes less inviting to the majority of drinkers accustomed to young flavors, aromas and appearance. To suggest that in 10 years a wine will be ready, perfect and most desirable is going to leave many drinkers disappointed, even though a strong case can be made for the positive evolution of bottles. The suggested window of wine drinkability should be now and soon for most consumers.

 
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