I’ve got a bit of a problem with the wine industry, and that’s the tasting notes. The tasting notes are the descriptive words that come with a review, or are sometimes listed alongside the wine if you go to a tasting room. Cherries, blackberries, blackcurrants and spice are common notes for reds; apples, pineapple and “minerality” are common for whites; vanilla is common for both.
Less common, but common enough, are lychee, horse saddle and truffles. Can you take a guess at what might be problematic about these tasting notes?
I’ll give you a hint: when was the last time you cooked a meal with truffles?
Tasting notes can have a tendency to reflect the privileged backgrounds of those who are writing the notes. You need to have tried truffles (an exorbitantly expensive mushroom), or at least had truffle oil; been horseback riding enough times to remember the smell of a saddle; and had lychees (an Asian fruit) or lychee martinis enough times to remember that. I am fortunate enough to have had some of these experiences, but not everyone has. At that point I imagine the wine list reader’s eyes glazing over and her getting frustrated with the wine list.
A second problem is that a lot of notes in the U.S. that are still used reflect the European wine culture, which existed long before America got into the game. “Blackcurrant,” a European fruit, is a major note in red wines, but have you ever had it?
Me neither. I’ve never seen blackcurrants at the farmer’s market or grocery store. So how are we supposed to know what it smells like? (I happen to have a faint memory of what Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) smells like, and this is how I recognize the smell.)
Gunflint, a hallmark of French Chablis (chardonnay), is a funny one. I tried to look up gunflint online to get more information, but all I could find were advertisements for Gunflint Lodge. I’m pretty sure gunflint is a type of rock that was used to help fire your gun back in the day, so you know—you’re supposed to recognize the smell of gunflint from your days as a French cavalry officer in 1852.
(“Petrol,” the British word for gasoline, is a word I like to use, however. Rieslings and some other whites sometimes smell like gasoline, but when you say “petrol,” it sounds more charming (and less offensive to the pourer). It is a great note to get in wine, and loved by many.)
Most people, when among good friends, will begin to be really honest with their assessment of a wine, including the flavors and smells. Gary Vaynerchuck, the on-point wine blogger, says that some wines smell like the candy Runts, and if you smell enough wines, you wil see that he’s right! My boyfriend comes up often with the smell of grape popsicle sticks, and he is also always right! And I often get “kindergarten classroom,” which can best be described as a combination of paste and a lunchbox that’s been left in a closet one day too many. All of these smells reflect our American background.
As the wine industry becomes more and more global, it is important to be bringing new notes to the lexicon. People in China are going to recognize different things than people in Greece, who will recognize different things than people in South Africa, and so on. Blackcurrants, gunflint, and horsesaddle are great, but people will feel better if they can see notes a little closer to home, and feel free to create their own.
So I’m looking for Beef MexiMelt, old jogging shoe, and hot pavement the next time I go tasting!