"'Ferrous'?" my wife asked with a semi-snarl as I described a wine to her. "What the heck is 'ferrous'? You mean iron, right?"
Well, yes and no—I did mean iron. But I meant iron like the pungent flint of a freshly struck cigarette lighter—more iron fillings than iron girder in feel. Her sarcastic look let me know she was unconvinced by my explanation, before following up with, "Please don't ever use 'ferrous' in a tasting note."
It's not the first time I've faced blatant incredulity when describing a wine. The wine geeks are with me on this one—we're often scorned when we reach for words to help describe why one particular wine stands apart from the rest of the herd.
The nomenclature of wine tasting notes has evolved into its own stand-alone lexicon—one easily navigable for experienced tasters, but often a quagmire for those just starting out. To help beginners along, I suggest they think of the kitchen.
The kitchen is where it all begins—smells, tastes and textures. Whenever I write a tasting note on a wine, I try to cover those three things.
For example, a wine may have a lemon note to it, and we can all identify lemon. But is it lemon curd, lemon verbena or lemon zest?
All three have lemon in common, but curd is creamy, verbena has more of an herbal feel, while the notion of zest describes a fresh, bright quality. Unless you've done your share of cooking or baking, though, these terms just sound like the ramblings of an overly fetishistic enophile.
It's the same with fruit flavors, probably the most common terms used in tasting notes. Raspberry, blackberry, plum—we can all handle that. But confiture, paste or jam?
I remember walking into the kitchen of a hotel in Burgundy one morning and being greeted—enveloped, even—by the warm aroma of freshly crushed raspberry fruit. "What is that?" I exclaimed. I mean, I knew it was raspberry, but what kind of raspberry could deliver that aroma?
"It's the confiture," said the woman stirring the pot. The warm, bubbling liquid that she was standing over was so vivid in color and stunning in aroma that I'll never forget it. To this day I use "confiture" not because I'm a Francophile, but because certain wines have such a glorious fruit aroma, it can only be described as confiture—"jam" just doesn't cut it. Jam is a jar of Smucker's. Confiture is the homemade kind.
Look at some of the terms I typically use: "fresh," "bright" and "crunchy"; "grilled," "sautéed" and "roasted." It all goes back to the smells, tastes and textures in the kitchen. It's no surprise to me that some of the best winemakers and tasters I know also happen to be darn good cooks. Good cooks can stand in front of a well-loaded spice rack and whip up a salad dressing in two minutes just like they can pick out the scent of sage versus lavender in a wine.
Becoming familiar with the wine lexicon relies on the power of recall for sure, but you don't need a childhood of mom's home cooking to pen flowery tasting notes. You can start building your library of kitchen memories at any time—starting with tonight's dinner. And when you do, make sure you've got a bottle of wine open. I'll bet you'll be perceiving pungent ferrous streaks or raspberry confiture notes in no time.