Tag Archives: flavor

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.

I am an umami’s boy

There are some politicians to whom the term “cipher” has been applied: they represent ill-defined figures upon whom a desperate public can project their desires. The notion of umami may be as poorly defined, at least in the culinary world.

While food science has long ago determined that umami is a form of glutamate attached to one or two proteins (know as IMP or GMP), umami has become variously known as “the smell of protein”, “the flavor of protein”, “the flavor of chicken soup”, of “the flavor of deliciousness.” Moreover, I have heard wine and culinary professionals insist that any rich flavor must a priori be umami-rich.
And umami’s existence, though identified in 1919 and a prominent component of flavored foods for half a century, is still in dispute by some recalcitrants. But like the little boy covering his face in fright, denying umami’s existence doesn’t make it go away.

In brief, umami is found in a variety of foods; that is in little dispute. It can be found in varying amounts in tomatoes, green beans, bivalves, shellfish, seaweed, mushrooms, many aged cheeses and in cooked meats, especially those that have been subjected to slow and long cooking.

What is still contentious is determining umami’s impact on other flavors (particularly sweetness and saltiness) and its impact upon wine. For instance, high amounts of umami can interact in somewhat unpleasant ways with high tannin wines, at least for many. But like all food experiences, the negative response to umami and tannin interaction is not universal. Many find the duo of tannin and umami gives a metallic taste, some find it only somewhat unpleasant and a significant percentage of people may have very little response at all.

This isn’t umami’s fault. There are no universal food or drink experiences, and therefore there are no universal experiences of food and drink in combination. You may like Brussels sprouts; I may find them annoying. I might enjoy liver and onions; you might be repulsed.

Certainly the combination of oysters and tannic red wine seems intuitively wrong. The high umami content of oysters is the culprit, and its kerwang effect on tannin explains the problem. But it’s important to accept that some people don’t find the two to be a bad match, though most people wouldn’t put them together.

And another complicating factor arises; salt can buffer tannin. Most chefs have noticed that salt buffers bitterness (chefs put salt on eggplant, don’t they?); yet the saltiness of oysters is not enough to overcome the umami effect on red wine.

Conversely, aged and/or well-cooked meats have plenty of umami, but you don’t hear anybody complaining about the metallic effect of cooked meats on red wines. Here again, there are other elements (including fats, proteins and salt) that provide plenty of counter-balance for red wine’s tannins. And most find it a happy match.

Finally, there is the age old pairing of blue cheese (rife with umami) with Port, a powerfully tannic wine. My palate finds a younger Port to be less enjoyable with blue cheese; maybe there’s too much tannin in the younger red to handle the cheese’s umami, despite the intense saltiness of most blue cheeses (remember salt buffers tannins).

But Port is also sweet. And that seems to be the missing piece. A dry red wine is unpleasant with blue cheese; a powerful and sweet wine is fine.

If this seems head-spinningly complicated, well, that’s hardly my fault. Foods and wines are comprised of hundreds if not thousands of myriad elements. But if there is a simplifying rule, it may be this: if both the food and the wine have a balance among the primary flavors of salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, they are likely to go well with just about any other well-balanced food or wine.

If not, then the food or the wine should not overwhelm its partner in any particular flavor category.

If all this makes you long for beer and chips, fret not. The business of food and wine matching is only complicated if you try to explain it. If you’re simply trying to enjoy it, then drink and eat whatever you damn well please.