“Barnyard” and Other Curious Terms

Newcomers and seasoned wine lovers alike are often scornful of the terms they find in the tasting notes of certain writers. “Why would I want to taste rocks?” they cry when a wine is described as “minerally.” “And what on earth does a barnyard taste like?!”

To paraphrase Thelonius Monk, writing has as about much to do with wine as “dancing about architecture.” Indeed, the limitations of mere words are soon revealed any time you try to describe a physical sensation like taste.

Two facts may help clear things up: 1) Taste isn’t everything; smell is equally important. So when we say a wine evokes roses, it’s not because we’ve ever eaten a rose; it’s the aroma that triggers the connection. 2) Words often suggest a wine’s character through connotation rather than literally describing its flavor – “earthy,” “woodsy,” and “perfumey” are good examples. Remain skeptical or even laugh if you wish, but an open imagination and a quick lesson in traditional wine shorthand will soon have you reading wine notes like a pro. And where better to start than the barnyard?

Beloved of the French, barnyard describes a rustic or fecund character, either a smell suggesting horses and hay (which can be pleasant) or just a “country” feel; it is often applied to red Burgundy, Nebbiolo, and southern French reds. The less threatening earthy is a useful word that can either liken a wine’s aroma to fresh, moist soil or describe the wine’s overall character—rustic, funky, unpolished. Minerally conveys the aroma of wet stones, a rocky stream, or a clean sidewalk after a rain. (Minerality is a defining component of the world’s best white wines and a few of its reds.) Dusty is used for dry wines (usually Bordeaux reds and Cabernet Franc) that bring to mind sawdust or a dusty country road.

Chewy is a textural descriptor of tannic or very concentrated wines (typically full-bodied reds), tongue-in-cheekily suggesting one has to chew the wine before swallowing. As for fat – and the maddeningly opaque term structure – we’ll have to ask you to turn to the Glossary (pages 217–222), where you’ll also find everything you always wanted to know about oak.

— Page 162, The Ultimate Wine Lover’s Guide (Sterling Publishing, 2005)

The Fun of Tasting

In the wine class you signed up for, you sip a certain Syrah and the instructor waits for impressions. One classmate shouts “Prunes!” and another pipes up with “Ash.” You taste neither, but do sense something flowery in the wine.

Wine tasting is more science than art. That’s because everyone’s taste buds are the same. The buds on the tongue’s surface differ only in which of the four basic flavors they register. Sweetness registers at the tongue’s tip; sourness at its sides; bitterness at the back; and saltiness over the whole surface. But that’s where the commonality ends. Which descriptors pop into your head as the wine washes over your tongue – cherries, herbs, or even leather or wet stones – are entirely personal. In other words, there’s hardly a correct answer to the question of a wine’s taste. Yes, certain flavors in some wines are frequently detected (grapefruit in Sauvignon Blanc and a Sancerre; black currant or pepper in Cabernet Sauvignon; black cherry or licorice in a Bordeaux), but whatever strikes you as enjoyable is really all that matters.

The Procedure

When dining out, proceed with the following steps as unobtrusively as possible, lest you come off as a sommelier or sommelière in training. First, give the wine in the glass a couple of swirls to release its aromas. Then take a good sniff. Aroma and flavor are intertwined, and smell alone is often enough to tell you not only what’s in store but whether a wine has gone bad.

Now take a sip and lightly swish it around to saturate the tongue. After swallowing, gently smack your lips once or twice to bring air into your retronasal passages and intensify the flavors and aromas. Does the wine taste clean and fresh? Does it have one dominant aroma (say, citrus), or many? Is it lively on the tongue or does it just sit there? Do the flavors linger nicely?

Above all, look for balance – the relationship between a wine’s acids (see Glossary, page 217); sugars (page 221); tannins, if any (page 222); and body (page 217). This sweet white needs acidity to keep from becoming cloying. That red is light and juicy but flavorless because it lacks ripe fruit. A balanced wine just feels right in the mouth.

A reward of paying close attention to your first sip is the reminder that no two wines are alike, one reason why appreciating the fruit of the vine is endlessly intriguing and downright fun.

— Page 84, The Ultimate Wine Lover’s Guide (Sterling Publishing, 2005)