There are certain wine tasting terms that everyone encounters and understands. Even the noobiest of noob wine drinkers can swirl, sip, and savor a glass of vino and identify (whether on their own or at the gentle instruction of someone more knowledgeable) common flavors like strawberry, cherry, and rose, but when it comes to some of the more, er, interesting wine descriptors, we cork dorks are used to getting a mightily arched eyebrow in response to our muttered musings. The next time you’re surrounded by oenophiles babbling on about how their glass of wine is rife with watermelon rind and pink peppercorns, refer to the handy list below and feel to pontificate at will.
Beef Jerky –
Let’s face it – if your wine really tasted like a Slim Jim you’d be super disgusted, but like most wine terms this one refers to an underlying essence of a flavor more than an out-and-out overwhelming taste. That umami sensation of savory, smoky, peppery, salty unctuousness that makes jerky so addictive is the same thing that pops up in complex wines like Red Zinfandel and Syrah, and when you catch a whiff or taste of it it’s just as hard to stop at one sip as it is to put down your meat stick after just one bite.
Sommeliers have stopped using this in polite (ie, customer) company because when most people hear the word “barnyard” their brain immediately conjures up a rather unpleasant image of poo. Great big piles of animal poo. Really, this isn’t too far off, as a wine showing a bit of barnyard really does have some countrified funk to it, but that funk has the kind of earthy, rich, pasture-after-a-warm-afternoon-thunderstorm familiarity that makes old world wines like Bordeaux so darned intriguing. Imagine being a kid on a French farm eating sun-warmed strawberries while perched on the fence watching the cows graze and you’re halfway to heaven. By the by – when a critic uses words like “goaty,” “cheesy,” or “rustic,” they mean barnyard, they’re just too scared to say it.
Equating a wine’s bouquet with the smell of roadwork is almost laughable, but treat yourself to a beautiful Rhone-style wine or Barolo and you’ll suddenly understand why the sight of a DOT crew makes me thirsty. This is an acquired taste, to be sure, but once you have it, it never goes away.
I’ll never get tired of talking about how underrated Riesling is, and part of that mission includes convincing drinkers that not only is my favorite grape not nearly as sweet as they think (or at least not always), some of the best versions have the most pungent undertones. Chemical compounds called terpenes pop up in wines like Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and Muscat, and they bring with them aromas of gasoline, kerosene, and paraffin. These notes are usually more prevalent in more mature bottles, and they provide a fantastic counterpoint to the classic fruity and honeyed flavors the varietal is more widely known for.
It’s worth noting here that when we winos say “smoke,” we most definitely mean the rich, redolent-with-deliciousness kind of smoke that comes of a wood-fired BBQ pit, and not the gag-inducing cloud that comes out of a seedy neighborhood dive bar. The former is what fuels wines like Central Coast Pinot Noirs and sultry Syrahs; the latter pairs better with morning-after regret and a Bloody Mary.
Cat Pee –
I do not like cats. That’s right, I said it. I do, however, like a little cat pee in my Sauvignon Blanc. Feel free to judge, but first let me try and explain… This controversial aroma is most often found in colder climate SBs, where the moderate climate allows things in wine called pyrazines to run rampant, or as a result of a sulfur-containing compound with a name too technical to mention here. For the same reason some weird smells are just as appealing to us as the finest perfumes, the faint odor of cat pee gives Sauvignon Blanc an intriguing counterpoint to the bright, acidic, and vegetal notes it’s also known for. The first sip or smell can be jarring, but when done right that initially off-putting note plays hide-and-go-seek with light florals and juicy fruit so that by the time you catch up to it again, you’re more than ready for a second glass.
As with most things in wine, there is an acceptable range for all things funky and just-this-side-of-foul. Finding weird and wacky flavors you enjoy is not just about a mere yea or nay, it’s about finding where on the scale of funk your palate likes to live, and then occasionally stretching your comfort zone so you’re both satisfying your cravings and expanding your horizons.