In the world of wine there are many, many – MANY – words for describing what you are tasting. Some are pretty universal and prosaic; we talk of the pepper spice in a good Zinfandel or the green apple in a Pinot Blanc, for instance. Some are a bit more unusual; such as talking about the tobacco in a hefty Cabernet Sauvignon, or referring to an earthiness in a red blend. They are terms that mean something, describe something we can all wrap our minds around. Sometimes we understand the flavor more for its aroma than actual taste. For example I have read descriptions of a big red wine being ‘redolent of wet earth” or a chardonnay having a hint of green grass.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t ingest either wet earth or green grass (for that matter most grasses are just not on my menu), but I can understand the flavor because of the aroma that green grass – especially freshly mown grass – is pretty pungent to the point that you can almost taste it. We talk about the grassy flavors of other foods and drinks – green tea and beer jump to mind. Most people have had the experience of a strong odor leaving a taste in our mouth and the connection between scent and taste is well documented.
But back to wine tasting. And vocabulary. I am totally on board with the notion that we all taste things just a bit differently from one another. It again has to do with that scent-taste thing. I am happy to give leeway to the vocabulary of wine tasting because of it. Mostly the flavors you hear people point to are somewhat generic – people talk about the dark fruit aspect of a wine, or they refer to red berry or citrus as flavors they pick up. It is a nice little lexicon that embraces the fleeting flavors you find when drinking wines or even beer.
Sometimes, however, it goes a bit too far. There are flavors that are pointed out that make me tilt my head and say “what?” Because really, have you actually tasted that thing you are comparing your wine to? I have to wonder. Today I ran into one of them. In fact, I pretty much ran head first into it. And sadly it came from a pretty well respected magazine, one with some serious experience in the world of food and wine.
The flavor profile of a wine (a well respected Northwest wine, I might add) was described as having “layers of mocha, tobacco and underbrush.” Yes. Underbrush. I am fully on board with the first two, but underbrush? That term brings to mind for this desert transplant the scent of creosote, dust and dry leaves. Not an appetizing combination. Had I not had the wine in question, a really good red blend, I would be rather put off. Underbrush. Really?
There is a part of me that wonders if this rush to terminology is one of those unfortunate pretentious side effects of being a wine lover. Note I didn’t say connoisseur. That term denotes an expert and quite frankly I have never heard a sommelier – a person who arguably is a connoisseur – use a term like underbrush (nor have I heard one refer to a wine as ‘saucy’ or other anthropomorphic personality traits).
But I feel I should be generous here; perhaps it is more a case of a lack of vocabulary. A dearth of terms that adequately describe a wine that leads us to try to find new and unique terms. After a while referring to the spice of a wine; the peppery aspects, the citrus, the green apple and melon; maybe we ache for a newer or better term lest we fall into that trap of describing everything in similar ways.
Much like how every exotic meat apparently tastes like chicken, we fear that every white ends up the same; every red has leather and licorice, every sparkling wine is zesty and effervescent, every white is citrusy and perfect for a hot summer’s day. It can drive us all to the Pythonesque extreme I suppose. And yet, still – underbrush?