Thursday, April 13, 2006

They are only words…… and sometimes they are all we have

Drinking a great wine is a very sensory experience that can evoke a wide range of emotions and memories. But how can we convey the experience of that wine to others who have not tasted it? While facial expressions, and other gestures, may have certain connotations that might prove useful particularly if the wine has been unpleasant, the spoken and written word has proven our best mode of communication. As noted before on Shiraz one problem that affects the ability to communicate the experience of tasting a wine is being able to accurately describe or label the odors, aromas, or bouquet associated with the wine. Another is the art of writing. Within this second facet is the ability to correctly use words to describe the experience.

I’ve been thinking about the correct use of words lately because I’m not satisfied with having to use the term palate in tasting notes. The principal definition of palate is anatomical and refers to “the roof of the mouth, which separates it from the nasal cavity”. A minor definition is “Relish; taste; liking; - a sense originating in the mistaken notion that the palate is the organ of taste.” So imagine, if you will, the accuracy of describing the taste of a wine with the phrase “on the palate”. Apart from the fact that the palate is not a taste organ, you would have to be standing on your head to have the wine on your palate.

The problem is, of course, that the terminology is so widely used. A search of will reveal that Parker has used it in the tasting notes of 8,423 wines. (I use Robert Parker as an example simply because his site has such a great search facility.) A comment on Palate is found in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, where it is noted as the “term used when describing tasting as a process and an ability.” Palate does not find its way into Wine, A Brief Encyclopedia by Walter James (Published 1960). Being a great fan of James I’m consoled by that. Perhaps in future I might try using simpler terms like mouth or tongue. Oral cavity seems just a little too clinical. Still I’m sure palate will creep back in at some point.

Another word that finds its way into tasting notes is one that is not found in any dictionary I have looked in. The word is minerality. You won’t find it in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, or Walter James’s Wine, A Brief Encyclopedia. But Robert Parker likes it, to date he has used it 856 times. And it occurs elsewhere such as “The precision and minerality of quartz and slate following spring showers preface a nose of varietal purity…” tasting notes for Leo Buring 2005 Eden Valley Riesling.

A word that is similar to minerality is minerally. You will find it in Michael Schuster’s Essential Winetasting where it is defined as “Suggestions to both nose and palate of stones; slate granite, chalk, schist and so on. Especially in wines from the Loire, N. Rhone, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Douro, Mosel, Tokay, etc. Fanciful? Maybe, but real enough to many winetasters; see Terrior” Jancis Robinson in How To Taste defines minerally as “smell of assorted minerals and a common component of fine Cabernet and Riesling”. But does minerally really evoke the smell of “quartz and slate following spring showers”? Not to me because the vast majority of minerals have no smell. So if a wine evokes the remembrance of the smell of wet rocks then it must be something separate that is being washed off those wet rocks.

There is a word that describes just that. Petrichor, it means “the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell”. [From petro- (rock), from Greek petros (stone) + ichor (the fluid that is supposed to flow in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology). Coined by Australian geologists I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas.] A more lengthy explanation comes from Michael Quinion at World Wide Words where he writes "the smell is an oily essence that comes from rocks or soil that are often (but not always) clay-based. The oil is a complicated set of at least fifty different compounds, rather like a perfume. It turned out that the oils are given off by vegetation during dry spells and are adsorbed on to the surface of rocks and soil particles, to be released into the air again by the next rains."

What an intriguing explanation. Its no wonder that minerality (minerally) has a connotation with terroir. More to the point its easy to see why Robin Garr became so enamored with a word that could have saved a paragraph in a tasting description. Petrichor, I can't wait to find a wine smelling of wet rocks just so I can use it. All I have to do is remember it. Petrichor, petrichor, petrichor.

Looking for more words to use in your next wine tasting note? Check out some of these.


Edward said...

Interesting essay.

I agree that the language used to describe wine is very important. I don't mind though if a critic uses mineral, slate or other inorganic descriptiors - especially if on tasting the wines in questions I can relate to their use of language.

As an aside, which you are probably aware of, some Australian cabernet has a eucalyptus scent. This is thought to be from the eucalypt oil from near by gum trees that has, during hot days, vapourised and then settled on the grapes.

Mike said...

Hi Edward

Yes, being an Aussie originally I'm aware of the eucalypt smell in some wines. The most obvious I've experienced was in the Cabernet Sauvignon from The Willows Vineyard in the Barossa. We went there to taste The Bonesetter (Shiraz) but it was all sold out. The Cabernet Sauvignon smelt overwhelmingly of eucalyptus and it was explained to us that the grapes for the wine came from a vineyard surrounded on three sides by eucalyptus trees. Its not the minty character that many people find in young Cabernet wines; I've seen that both here in the Napa and in Oz.

Mint is found in many New World reds, particularly Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and is due to l-carvone. Eucalyptus, found in Australian reds from grapes grown within the immediate vicinity of eucalyptus trees, can be found on many New World reds, particularly California Cabernets. Its due to Eucalyptol. (There are Eucalyptus trees in California.) More details here.