Man Up: How to Talk about Wine

Jeff Smith is the founder and president of Carte du Vin, a wine cellar management company based in Los Angeles, and the author of The Best Cellar, which includes in-depth step-by-step advice on how to buy, sell, and maintain a wine collection. Here he offers some practical advice on how to enjoy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs—plus how to sound smart while (attempting) to talk about them. The result is a cheat sheet worth framing, or at least writing on the back of your hand before a big date.

Eskimos have 100 words for snow, and for good reason: there's a ton of snow in Alaska, and it’s not all the same. The closer you look at anything, the more you start to draw small distinctions. At least this is what I tell people when trying to explain why wine geeks have about a million descriptors to identify virtually imperceptible differences in aroma and flavor.

Recently, Wine Spectator magazine reviewed over 700 wines, including a number of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. That’s a whole lot of wine to describe. And the magazine has a responsibility to its readership to make all those Sauvignon Blancs sound like they're not the same. Here's a small selection of words the Spectator used to in the service of differentiating various Sauvignon Blancs: petrol, lanolin, spice notes, honeysuckle, fresh grass, fresh chive, peach and tangerine finish, passion fruit, guava, pickled ginger, spiced pear, kiwifruit, talc, lemongrass, and fresh thyme. Nothing is out of bounds.

This may seem like a silly parlor game, but it becomes a lot more interesting and fun if you know how to play. It’s pretty useful to be able to describe what you’re smelling and tasting, whether you want to impress someone special, or just figure out what you like. And if you taste several bottles of the same kind of wine side-by-side, you get a better sense of how these descriptors really do help define what it is that you like (or don’t like) about a wine. As with so many things in life, it's best to fake it until you make it.

Here's a novice's guide to talking about wine:

  • Be specific with your language. “Citrus” isn’t bad, but “lemony” is better. And “Meyer lemon” or “lemon zest” will really make it seem like you know what you're talking about. Crunchy green apple, succulent nectarine, oolong tea—it's this kind of specificity that gets bonus points for creativity.

  • Tie together your hyper-specific nouns with some broad adjectives. Here's a shortlist: Elegant, balanced, bright, refreshing, smooth, vivid, tangy, zesty, round, juicy.

  • If you get stuck at any point, just lean on words like “notes” or “finish” (the sensation that lingers in your mouth after the wine is on its way down your throat).

  • From there, just mix and match like “Madlibs” and you've got something like: "A juicy and vibrant white that features notes of key lime pie, white grapefruit, and green tea, giving way to flavors of coconut water, ripe pineapple and dried mango. Bracing acidity adds plenty of punch to its elegant finish." Easy enough, right?

Oh, and as for the wine itself: New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are more aromatic and over-the-top in style than those from the US, or the classic style of the Loire Valley in France. They are absolutely perfect for summer sipping. Three of the best to look for: Kim Crawford, Cloudy Bay, and Dog Point, all around $20.

Jeff Smith

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