The more alive we are to the uniqueness and complexity of aroma and flavor notes, the more overwhelming it can be to categorize or even to describe them with confidence. Many of the most interesting aromas we find in wine cannot be pinned down in terms of established concepts or categories. However, if we pay attention, the aromas themselves tell us what they are. The complexity and vagueness of wine poses a riddle. We can discover the answer to that riddle only through engagement and attention to what is there. The riddle gives the wine a voice and allows it to tell its own story. It’s up to us to engage with the wine and, from the clues it offers, discover what is speaking.
The key to this is language, but it’s devilishly hard to put aromas into words. Our vocabulary isn’t built for it. We have multiple ways of describing a personality or the weather. We just stutter when it comes to aromas. And so wine experts must invent terms amongst themselves which will always seem like a foreign language to outsiders.
And yet it is precisely this process of evolving a rich, meaningful vocabulary of descriptors that lets your imagination penetrate each wine, making you aware not just of its dominant character but of all its nuances as well. Naming something enables us to become more intimate and familiar with it—it’s like the difference between saying “hey you” and “good morning Michael.”
People who taste for a living—winemakers, chocolatiers, cheese mongers, and coffee buyers—require a highly nuanced vocabulary to describe what they are tasting. This private vocabulary can seem inscrutable to outsiders making it the source of jokes and an object of derision.
But this derision is misplaced. There are exceptions, but most of the time this vocabulary is a good example of the reach and imagination required to really capture what things taste like in all their layers and complexity. Having a flexible, colorful vocabulary for capturing them is indispensable if we want to remember what we taste and smell.
In reaching for language, all professional tasters take their cue from poets, who use metaphor and simile to make feelings and ideas vivid to us. Often, poetic description makes use of synesthesia, the interconnection of the senses, evoking language associated with, say, sound and touch to describe an aroma. Baudelaire wrote: There are perfumes cool as children’s flesh / sweet as oboes, green like the prairie. This kind of cross-fertilization between the senses lends sensual richness to our experience. The same sort of cross-fertilization happens with wine descriptions when we speak of warm spices or loud fruit and sharp acidity.
Yet for all the rich sensory stimulus wine gives us, outside of professional contexts, our language to discuss wine is impoverished. Most consumers rarely reach beyond broad descriptors such as sweet, sour, spicy or smooth.
Thus even non-professionals, if they want to maximize their enjoyment of wine, should try creating their own terms for the aromas they smell. It doesn’t matter how subjective your use of them is—in fact, the more subjective the better. Unless you are a professional taster, or aspiring to become one, it’s actually not so important that you learn a common vocabulary for talking about wine. It’s much more important to develop a vocabulary around wine that is meaningful to you—a vocabulary that helps you become aware of what you taste in a given wine, in all its complexity; to imagine it as part of a whole; and then to describe what you taste in it when you put it all together.
Consistency isn’t especially important either; as you get more comfortable around wine, you’ll find better ways—more alive and specific ways—of describing it.
Ultimately, the narratives and metaphors you construct around wine allow you to remember what you tasted and to learn from it for the next time. In effect, you are creating a personal database of drinking experiences.
Find your own way of describing wine, but learning some winespeak, even if it’s inaccessible at first, is a good way to get started.