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harvey steiman at large

Whaddya Mean, 'Liquid Rock'?

When tasting notes specify flavors that can seem unpleasant
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 8, 2014 5:22pm ET

The photograph on Twitter showed a lineup of Hermitage bottles. The caption read "Liquid Rock."

This was obviously meant to laud the mineral character that famously runs through great Hermitage reds, made from Syrah on granite slopes. I get it. Minerality is the flavor darling of the moment in wine. We may not agree on exactly what it is—a whiff of the aroma we get off of wet pavement? River stones? That bricklike character that basalt rocks can give off? Or maybe just a vibrancy that comes from high acidity? But wines that have it get extra kudos from many sommeliers and wine writers, including me.

On the other hand, anyone who isn't a wine insider might wonder if that can possibly be good. It certainly would not make my cousin Morty want to drink the wine. Or, probably, most anyone who has not passed a course in advanced winespeak.

Mineral aromatics are just one of a whole range of flavors usually lumped under the more general categories of "savory" or "earthy" that wine geeks love but leave regular folks wondering what we're talking about.

I always have a conversation with myself about how specific I need to be when I detect these characteristics. Do I really need to specify in a published tasting note what sort of gamy flavor I find when it's just a grace note, or is it enough to note that there's a hint of gamy or meaty character? It's not just gaminess. Should I mention that the herbal aromatics have tipped over into a hint of rotten salad, especially if the overall effect of the wine is positive?

For me, what matters is how prevalent that flavor might be. If I had to tease it out from a range of background characteristics, it's probably not worth mentioning because it might convey a negative association when I really like the wine. Better to keep it general, and focus on what distinguishes the wine from its peers. Usually it's the sense of harmony and expressiveness that matters, not a specific flavor.

How about you? Do you find these associations off-putting or exciting?

Richard Gangel
San Francisco, CA USA —  May 9, 2014 12:51pm ET
Perhaps I am unsophisticated, but when I read a critic's review of a wine what I am looking for his or her overall impression of the wine and what that brings to the senses of taste and smell rather than the individual notes of a particular fruit, vegetable, mineral, etc. I frequently muse at the different impressions that one critic picks up from a particular wine in contrast to that of another critic. Granted, each of us has experiences that differ from others and that's how we come up these different associations. That's why I agree with you that it's better to "keep it general" and I think most readers will not criticize you for it.

I know that by doing this it will make the tasting quiz that Wine Spectator regularly publishes useless, but so be it.
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  May 9, 2014 12:56pm ET
Give us warts and all Harvey. I wouldn't have it any other way. I find these associations informative.
Thanks.
John I Hanbury
Virginia —  May 9, 2014 5:13pm ET
I concur with Richard. I have never tasted many of the bizarre flavors allegedly detected by the "experts," nor do I think I would like them. Just tell me about the general flavor, body, tannins, and the finish. I'll take care of the rest.
Steven Krueger
San Antonio, Texas, USA —  May 9, 2014 7:33pm ET
I love it when a wine inspires the writer to wax poetic. Yet, I want it to be about the wine.
Eric Campos
Canada —  May 11, 2014 7:43am ET
I like a review that captures the core characteristics of a wine in 1-2 sentences as objectively as possible. I do, however, appreciate additional information on traits that are less common and which may not be to everyone's liking. Everything in its context, of course: you hardly need to describe the honey and wet-wool notes of a chenin blanc from Vouvray, but would need to do so in wines from South Africa, where these traits are (sadly) missing much of the time.

Case in point: last week I had the rare pleasure of drinking a Thorn-Clarke 2004 William Randall Barossa Shiraz. On the nose, my brother's description of an "After Eight" confection was dead-on, with the most obvious mint and chocolate notes either of us had ever experienced. The palate was what one would expect from a good, mature shiraz. If someone were to review this wine now, it would be a disservice to exclude these choco-mint descriptors.

Reviewer expertise also plays a role: are 'menthol notes' being used to describe perceptible alcohol, or is "smoky piquancy" simply referring to unintegrated SO2?
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  May 12, 2014 1:49pm ET
I appreciate being specific and using the appropriate word to describe something, much to the chagrin of my wife and friends. I'm not trying to use 10-dollar words, but if a 10-dollar word best describes something then so be it. They just slip out.

So I understand the need to describe a wine with as much clarity/rectitude as possible. It's part of your professional integrity. However, I also know that, as a public speaker, I must consider the experience/education level of my audience when choosing my words. I don't consider it "dumbing-down" but, rather, making my speech "mass-relevant". If I use speech that's above my audience then I might as well be banging a couple of cymbals together for a few minutes and call it quits.

So.... While I appreciate the specificity of one reviewer's repeated use of "Linzer torte," because I've never had one of these oldest-cakes-in-history I really don't understand what he's trying to convey. However, if he broke it down into elements of nutmeg, cinnamon, hazelnut and some type of jam (apricot and raspberry are VERY different Mr. M!) then I might just get it. For this exact reason I have fastidiously refrained from making references to "Sacher torte" in my personal tasting notes on Cellartracker because I think maybe 1% of the population would get it. Both of these tortes originate in Austria, but even if you've been to Austria you may have never had the pleasure of enjoying either torte.

I'll get off my soapbox now, but I will endorse Harvey's resolve to use as simple and recognizable of tasting descriptors as possible. (THROWING MIC DOWN)
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  May 13, 2014 7:00pm ET
I want the write up to be as descriptive as possible, such that the author could reasonably recall what that wine tasted like years later. If reviews solely focus on the primary impressions, then many reviews will conflate, esp for many Aussie Shirazes.

I want detailed tasting descriptors, without getting too esoteric, which is a judgement call. (I still have no idea what "linzer torte" tastes like.) The review can clearly denote when a flavor/aroma is a "hint" so expectations are set accordingly. I'm not a fan of gamy, I'm neutral about tar and olive, and I'm a big fan of berry, especially pure and blue. I want to know these things.

Finally, I would not worry about negative descriptors in the review of an excellent wine, since there is the great abjudicator, known as the score. E.g. if there is liquid rock and the score is 93, clearly it was good liquid rock.

Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  May 14, 2014 10:57pm ET
I like to see the salient and mid-level flavors and characteristics. But including tertiary flavors... that third level that is hard to pick up except under perfect wine tasting circumstances, is not that useful. Our tongues are so different anyway I suspect we are not likely to sense the same minor flavors. I do like to know if a wine is not typically varietal in flavor, structure, acidity, etc. because I am the wine/food matcher at home.
But PLEASE PLEASE tell us if it is dry, off-dry or sweet. For many, level of sugar in a wine determines whether or not they like it. My wife will not drink anything off-dry or sweet while some of her friends will drink only off-dry wines. Many CA chards are off-dry today. Merlots and Syrahs from the US and Australia are sometimes off-dry, and there is the usual wide range of sweetness in Rieslings and Chenin Blanc. I personally really need to know this and expect others do as well. We are usually told how acidic a wine is. Why do we so rarely learn how sweet it is???
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  May 24, 2014 9:50pm ET
So you feel obligated to "hide" descriptors when you suspect they'll detract from the overall impression? No wonder your scores often seem out of whack.

I want warts 'n' all. But you censor. (sigh)

But what seems to be missing from most WS reviews is any sense of what primarily comes out of the glass (i.e. what ANYONE can sense in the aroma/taste, What DOMINATES) vs. lesser nuances. If fruit is not the primary focus, then say so! If all you taste is wood and herb, I need to know that! If acid sticks out of the texture, (to me) that's obnoxious! Say so!

Little by little I'm sure we'll understand why "what we taste" never quite alignns with "what H.S. scored".
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  May 25, 2014 4:10am ET
Dan, I think you misunderstand what I was trying to articulate. I never said I "hide" descriptors; I try to find words more readers will find useful in describing the wine. If a specific descriptor sends the wrong message, I seek another to communicate that charcter. How is that censoring?

Your next-to-last paragraph describes pretty much what I, and other Wine Spectator reviewers, do. If you read my tasting notes I think you will find that I do point out when a wine is particularly woody or herbal, or if it is more tart than its peers, or maybe lacking in acidity. My point was that, if those elements are so minute that I have to tease them out, they must be secondary to the overall impression the wine makes. It's more important to focus on what makes a good wine distinctive and might make a lesser wine worth considering. The bad wines just get a brief note identifying what makes it subpar.

If you disagree with my ratings, you wouldn't be the first. But it will be because you have different tastes from mine, not because I try to hide anything.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  May 25, 2014 12:49pm ET
Don here (not Dan). Then please allow me to clarify. You ask: "Should I mention that the herbal aromatics have tipped over into a hint of rotten salad, especially if the overall effect of the wine is positive?" Yes. Say that. Say there's a hint of rotten salad, but ALSO that the overall effect is positive. Don't censor that element from your note because you don't want people to take a negative read on the wine. That "rotten salad" may be a grace note to you, but an overwhelming stench to someone else. Sounds gross to me, so to me you censored in that example.

I, for one, am becoming increasingly intolerant of prune (in a way, curious because I'm enamored of date and fig). If there's even the slightest bit of prune (as there is in so many Zinfandels, Syrahs and affordable domestic blends of all kinds) I need to know that. But prunes aren't terribly popular, maybe you shouldn't say it so people don't get a negative impression? Wrong! We WS subscribers are relying on you for transparent reporting! Let the wineries write their own whitewashed tasting summaries!

If you select your descriptors in that way, conscious of values that might be placed on your words, you are reviewing, ultimately, only for you.

My afterthought was that you could also save the space normally reserved for "as the finish sails on and on" to tell us which elements of the finish prevail. "Ending with tannins?" e.g. Ending with fruit? Jarring acidity? Secondaries? Lengthy ending with all elements in harmony? "Sails on and on" fails to communicate anything meaningful.

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