Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.
Last week I made a point that all tasting notes are opinions. And I told you that in many cases, contemplating tasting notes is flat-out boring.
Today I'm going to fly in the face of all that. Here's an argument for the extreme usefulness of tasting notes in certain situations: Learning to give a good, accurate (if rather straightforward and unsexy) tasting note can dramatically increase your chances of getting the wine you feel like drinking. Say you're in a restaurant, and you know what you want: it's fresh, juicy, delicious! It's so clear in your mind, you can almost taste it...but you're not at all sure how to communicate it to your server or the sommelier.
It's as if I tried to choreograph a ballet: "First squat a little, then jump up and—hi-ya!—kick your leg way up. Now fling your arm out and run that way, super fast with tiny little steps." The dancer would try her best, but it might not come close to what I imagined. I could either expect the dancer to learn my own bizarre language, or I could learn a few simple ballet terms and beam with joy when she nailed my routine.
As you may have guessed, there's a specific vocabulary that wine professionals use, too. We use these terms for blind tasting so that we can better understand (without preconceived notions or biases) where a certain bottle fits in the greater context of wine around the world. And perhaps more importantly, we use these terms so that we can all get on the same page when discussing wine.
You can get on the same page, too: learning a few simple wine terms will help you describe a wine and explain what you want, so that you can be the one beaming with joy when your server or sommelier delivers exactly what you were in the mood for.
This week, I'm going to break this process down for you, using the "weird" wine I tasted this week. The wine was the 2009 Ànima Negra Àn/2, a red blend from the Spanish island of Mallorca. The grapes are Callet, Manto Negre, Fogoneu and Syrah—I'd never heard of the first three, and I'd certainly never know to ask for them. Like me, you might see this wine on the shelf or a wine list and pass right over it since you'd have no idea if it was in line with what you felt like drinking. Unless you had a repertoire of tasting notes to pull from and a server ready to steer you in the right direction...
The very first thing we talk about when we're identifying a wine is the wine's color. Say you're drinking a red wine. Ok. But is it ruby red? Or more reddish brown? Does it have a purple hue to it? We also touch on the wine's concentration: how much we can or cannot see through it. "Low" means you could read a newspaper through it. "High" means it's opaque.
The Àn/2 is ruby red with medium concentration.
When we start to talk about what the wine smells like, we talk about fruit, absolutely, but it's not meant to be poetic. We aim for specific and succinct rather than extravagant terms: Is the fruit underripe, ripe, or overripe? Does it smell cooked or candied? What kind of fruit is it? Berries, or stone fruit, or citrus, or...?
The fruit in the Àn/2 is overripe; including overripe red and black raspberries, cherries and plums.
Then we consider non-fruit aromas: Are there any earthy or mineral-like elements, such as chalk or fresh potting soil? What about spices, which might indicate the use of oak barrels for aging the wine? How about flowers, or herbs, or nuts?
In the Àn/2, non-fruit aromas include smoke, dried black earth, ash, tar, roasted herbs, tobacco, cedar, vanilla, cinnamon.
Palate and Structure: Now we get to taste the wine. We can typically confirm what we smelled; after all, a huge part of your taste comes thanks to your sense of smell anyway.
Structurally, we want to know if the wine feels angular or curvaceous, energetic or fat in the mouth. We try to use as objective terms as possible to identify the wine's sweetness, body, acidity, tannins, and alcohol. A basic five-point scale is useful for each of these, ranging from dry to sweet, light to full or low to high.
Let's give it a go: The Àn/2 is medium-bodied. It is dry with medium-plus acidity, medium tannins and medium-plus alcohol.
These details can help us place wines on a spectrum. Say we're tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. It's likely to be full in body, dry, with medium acidity, high tannins and high alcohol. In contrast, a Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region in France tends to be light-bodied, dry, with high acidity, medium-minus tannins and medium alcohol. The Àn/2 we're describing here falls somewhere in the middle.
If you're trying to identify a wine blind, every single piece of our evaluation is a clue to crack the case. But these are also tools for you to pull from in regular life, so that you can communicate what sort of wine sounds good to you. And the next time your server asks, "What do you feel like drinking?" you can tell her you're in the mood for something red, dry and medium-bodied. You love smoky notes and really ripe berry flavors—but not too much tannin. Chances are good she'll have a very clear idea of where to take you. And maybe, if you're lucky, she'll have something new, weird and wonderful for you to try.
2009 Ànima Negra Àn/2
The Grapes: Callet, Monto Negre, Fogoneu, Syrah
The Region: Mallorca, Spain
Retail Price: $18
About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in Wine Grapes. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.
Wine provided as a sample for review consideration.