In a word, how do you describe a wine?

Reprinted from The Kansas City Star, July 21, 2009

Does a rose by any other name smell just as sweet? I recently sat down with some coffee experts to talk about aromas and the words wine and coffee experts use to describe them.

Why do we need words to describe flavors? Most people don’t need to “describe” the flavor of an apple. The experience of eating an apple is so universal that most would describe an apple simply by stating the color: if the apple is green, we expect it to taste tart. If it’s red, we expect it to be a bit sweet.

But when it comes to wine, few people have enough experience to have such ironclad expectations. So the wine industry employs its own nomenclature to describe wines, and sometimes those words seem downright secretive.

The coffee industry has a similar challenge; few coffee drinkers contemplate the flavors of their coffee. Often enough, they’re not awake enough to appreciate anything other than the caffeine content. But the coffee business, like the wine industry, has developed terms to differentiate one coffee from another.

Danny O’Neill, proprietor of the Roasterie, a local coffee producer, keeps a series of charts on the wall of his tasting room. Aromas are separated into categories of spicy, resinous and pyrolytic, among other groupings. Pyrolytic characteristics, in case you were wondering, include malt, roasted and burnt coffee, and pipe tobacco.

But the words of wine can be even more perplexing, if not ridiculous: tannic, barnyard, angular, feminine. Some of these words are mysterious, bizarre or possibly sexist. What does the word “tannic” mean? It means bitter and astringent. Barnyard? Why would I want a wine that smells like a cow patty? Well, some people like a little bit of that, particularly in their French wines. For some people, it makes the wine more complex. For others, it just smells bad.

And words like “feminine” or “masculine” (lots of writers employ those terms) suggest that wines carry gender traits of softness, muscle, aggression, seductiveness, curves and, well, you can see why people find the words of wine to be so vexing.

The wine and coffee industries utilize these words because they are confronted with a difficult challenge: how do you describe flavor? For many industry professionals, it’s a simple matter: the industry can describe wines by describing the flavors and aromas of common foods, plants, flowers, spices and the like.

Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, is a grape that makes a wine with the flavor of melons, lemons and grapefruits and an herbal, even vegetal character, reminiscent of lemongrass, peas and even asparagus. Cabernet Sauvignon has plums and cherries, along with black pepper, cedar box and baking spices. Sure, some of those characteristics come from the barrels in which the wine is aged, but a wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon is best described by using those terms.

For many of the younger members of the wine industry, speaking of wine as being “aristocratic” or “seductive” or “withdrawn” or “showing malolactic notes” (as traditional wine writers have done), seems a bit exclusionary, at least insomuch as those terms are far harder to understand than saying that a wine has spice or pepper or, to describe “malolactic” aromas, that a wine smells a bit like melted butter.

But even these words might be debatable. “Buttery” may describe a typical California Chardonnay, but is that a term that many wine drinkers would use? As a teacher in the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine programs, I believe that wine drinkers use such words only because they are prompted to do so, not because such descriptions come naturally.

Still, anyone trying to assess the flavors of a beverage will use terms that reflect the flavors of that beverage, as well as the flavors that are most important to an expert. Danny O’Neill and the other professionals at the Roasterie are most focused on what differentiates one coffee from another: Is it fruity? Nutty? Floral?

So the descriptors that professionals use to describe flavors, whether in coffee or wine (or beer or whatever), are likely to seem odd to most casual tasters. Professionals are not interested in the flavors that are typical in a coffee or wine. Rather the best way we can differentiate one coffee or wine from another is to describe what is unique to each individual blend, and that unique character is usually something odd, like pipe tobacco or malt in coffee, or barnyard or earthy aromas in wine.

Since tasters are looking for the weird stuff in wine and coffee, we tend to find flavors that most people wouldn’t find, unless they, too, were trying to find them. But most people aren’t looking for weird stuff; they just want their beverage to taste good. That’s the problem with professional tasters: they forget that the most important attribute of any drink is to be tasty.

The coffee industry may have its own private nomenclature, but coffee is accepted as a common man’s drink, despite the arcane terminology coffee roasters might utilize. Wine, on the other hand, intimidates any normal person, with a plethora of terms such as acidity (think lemon, lime or green apple), diacetyl (popcorn butter), Kimmeridgian soils (oyster shells) and all the other myriad notes employed to explain how wines that taste very similar to one another can be different — if you look really closely.

Looking closely is not something most people need to do. For most, if it tastes good, it’s good. There ought to be no other justification required for someone to recommend a wine; but professionals find that further, perhaps confusing, detail is required.

Maybe wine writers should learn from the coffee industry. The coffee business hasn’t addled its consumers with vocabulary, even if the words are odd.

So why does O’Neill keep a chart with descriptors like pyrolytic, floral, musty?

“We stole the idea of these kinds of descriptors from wine people; these are basically the kinds of words wine people use,” he said.