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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Are Wine Terms Legit or Bulls&*(?

In this episode, Contributing Editor Mike Schachner riffs with New York City beverage directors Pascaline Lepeltier and Jeff Porter on whether popular wine terms help or hinder our understanding of what’s in the glass.

Listen to other episodes of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast


Read the full transcript of “Are Wine Terms Legit or Bulls&*(?”:

Michael Schachner: Hi. I’m Michael Schachner, Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s contributing editor for Spain and South America.

In this episode, I’ll join beverage directors Jeff Porter and Pascaline Lepeltier in decoding esoteric wine terms and descriptors, and we’ll sound off on whether they’re helpful or bound for the trash can.

Jeff Porter: Hello. My name’s Jeff Porter. I am the beverage operations director for the Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group.

Pascaline Lepeltier: Pascaline Lepeltier. Beverage director and partner Rouge Tamate Chelsea.

MS: We’re here today at Lupa, one of the fine trattorias in New York City and we’re going to discuss wine terms. Wine terms, are they bullshit or are they legit? As we all know, describing wine requires boatload of adjectives and it’s a deep mining or a sensory memories. But it isn’t science, it’s subjective and it’s a craft and it’s definitely prone to hyperbole and a lot of fluffy verbiage and that’s where you guys are gonna come in and we’re gonna discuss some of these things. What I want to do is just kinda go through some common terminology that might be on the fence between B.S. and real and an expert, such as us, are gonna give it the eh (buzzer sound) or the yeah (bell sound). So that’s kinda where we’re at on this. So let’s, we’ll get going and we can kinda bounce around a little bit. But there’s a term that I’ve used on many, many occasions to describe the mouthfeel in a wine and I’ve had some people say, I get that, others say I don’t know what the hell that means, Mike. How about clacky? Does that word mean anything to you?

PL: What does that mean?

MS: For me, it’s the equivalent of like high heels on a cement or a tile floor.

PL: Clack clack clack clack.

MS: Clack clack clack clack. It’s just like hard and I would say a wine might be something along the lines of a really, really thin, like Village Begonia that’s a lot more acid than body, a lot more rip than softness. It just kind of suggests that it’s hard, sort of like heels on a cement or tile floor.

PL: So make you feel a bit acid, for example? Acid would be the kind of driven for this kind of wine, like licking a bit of flesh and just make a tinch tinch tinch. Is what you’re saying?

MS: Just something where there isn’t a lot of support or sponge or give or body to the wine. Where it feels like it’s very superficial and very hard.

JP: I mean, I think my term for that would be disjointed ’cause it sounds like the wine’s parts aren’t all in play and this just one voice is singing without the harmony amongst everything else and there right there I used a bunch of non-wine terms to describe wine, which some people don’t like either. But, clacky is not in my vocabulary but is now in my memory and I-

PL: Yeah, maybe as a woman I will try to use something else to like the stiletto Louboutin on the cement just is not necessarily the men thing. But I think, I like the idea of onomatopoeia, like sound, to describe a wine, especially for nonprofessional because sometimes it scares them and at least when you use a clack clack clack, right away they have, not only a sound but they have a visual idea and I think sometime it’s super useful to go that path.

MS: ‘Cause at this point, it might be something that’s a little bit esoteric but possibly has the ability to properly describe at least an element of a wine.

JP: Well I think like vroom or buzz or…

PL: Or (whoosh sound).

JP: Yeah, exactly. The wine, the wine’s like, it’s like a laser. It’s like bing.

PL: That works pretty well.

MS: Well clacky is definitely one that refers more or less to mouthfeel and sensation. But let’s move on to one that I think anyone who’s ever tasted, smelled Sauvignon Blanc or has read about them knows, and that is cat pee. Where do we stand on cat pee?

PL: It’s not necessarily wrong. That very specific sensation about Sauvignon Blanc sometimes you have to use words like specific trees, spaces, other vocabularies that are very, very scary and at the end, the cat pee one, I can help demystify wine a little bit. It’s not the nicest one, that’s for sure, but there is, if you put it in right context and balanced by a real respect for the wine, certain knowledge of this type of grape, I think helps people to suddenly feel a bit more comfortable when you’re talking to them about wine.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. I think it is about using common terminology and Pascaline’s a Master Sommelier, I’ve sat for the MS before and we have specific words or styles of phrasing for wine that we use that’s kind of within the lexicon of the court but that’s very difficult and maybe not appropriate on the floor of a restaurant or retail shop all the time.MS: What about natural wine? Do you think you could succinctly, maybe in 100 words or less, not counting, tell anyone who cares what the hell is a natural wine is and what it isn’t?

JP: Pascaline, I’m going to defer to you on this one.

MS: Madame Naturale.

PL: Natural wine. There is that very simple sentence I like from Alice Feiring which is nothing added and nothing taken away. That’s it. So, farming made without scented chemicals and then nothing added and nothing taken away during the vinification process. I think is the easiest definition is just grape juice that has been fermented. Easiest definition for me.

JP: That’s kind of the definition I use as well ’cause once you open it to something else, it’s a rabbit hole and there’s excuses for a lot of things and then, it should be simple. Literally, wine made simple.

PL: Yeah, one thing I have to say, just on that, and it’s very good, is the idea of craft and arts. And to make a good natural wine I think they are the toughest wine to make because you just don’t allow yourself to use anything to help you out to make something so it requires an extraordinary amount of observation, a craft in term of your farming, and a craft in term of your wine making so there is a lot of wines that are not good and the great natural wine are probably the toughest to achieve because there is so much that you can’t control and you don’t allow yourself to control.

MS: And natural wine, by no means in your opinion, is an excuse for making bad wine.

PL: No, there is absolutely a shit ton of bad natural wine. The same way there is a shit ton of bad conventional wine. You know, I think the debate should be over today. There is good wine and bad wine. And then, depending on what you are looking for in your wine, if you agree to accept a little bit of variation from a bottle to another or not, you maybe go to something that is less interventionist. If you want safety and making sure your wine tastes all the time all the same, you go with a wine with a bit more intervention. That is just good wine and bad wine. What is more important is we all need good farming and that I think is that point. We need to really care about the farming first.

MS: Full-bodied wines, red wines, California Cabernet to Malbecs of Argentina, maybe some of the super Tuscans, you know, you go into a steak house or some place and you hear these guys, oh man look at the legs on that, look at the tears on that. I’m curious, I mean tears and legs, are these terms that should just stop crying and take a walk or do they actually mean something? Tears and legs, do they help quantify or qualify a wine in any way as far as you’re concerned?

JP: When my guests asks me that, I just say, it’s not a qualitative measure. The legs aren’t telling you if it’s good or not. They may tell you how much alcohol or how much sugar it’s in it. But at that end of the day, it’s not, I don’t use it as a valid importance in judging a wine. Unless I’m doing a blind tasting and Pascaline’s judging me.

PL: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s important if you may want to guess blind but otherwise, there is no, I’m totally agree with you on that one, there is no judgment of quality on that one. It’s just how the wine should taste, there is so many parameters, so much more complex, and people’s things too, I’ve heard tears or legs as a right world is like that is another very other feminist point of you to have on this one. But, no, it’s more for the fun. If the guys have fun with that, you know what, it’s great, like it’s enjoyable for them, no problem.

JP: But at the end of the day, not a lot of value in that.

When I first started wine, the very first wine book I had when I was in the floor of the retail store was that little wine dictionary. So if a guest would ask me about something I didn’t know, let’s say Tannat, I would look it up in the wine dictionary and it would describe the grape to me, even though I’d never had it and then I would look for those key points and that’s how I’ve always used publications. It’s like, I’ve never thought of that word with that wine before and like, do I understand that, do I experience it. Like gooseberry. Gooseberry is used with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, just like cat pee is all the time.

MS: How many gooseberries have you ever eaten?

JP: I’ve had three.

MS: That’s three more than me maybe.

PL: I had more.

JP: And I sought out a gooseberry when I was at a grocery store one time ’cause there was a sign that said gooseberries. I went over there and I ate one.

MS: Sour.

JP: Sour. And I was like, oh, I get it. Or passion fruit. I’m from Texas. We don’t have those kind of, when growing up I didn’t have those. And when I had passion fruit, I was like okay, I get this.

MS: Passion fruit is one of the most distinct aromas and flavors that you can find in a wine. I think it’s one of the most transferrable fruit terminologies that exist.

JP: But if you’ve never had it, it’s extremely difficult. And I think that we sommeliers fall in that trap a lot, of using our own internal lexicon to be like, oh passion fruit, and then they’re like, I don’t know what that is. And you’re like, okay, and you have to kinda shift on the fly. But again, I think that goes back to, for me, the guest drives the conversation because at the end, it’s their ultimate happiness that I’m trying to provide.

MS: Let me ask you guys, it seems to me that a lot of sommeliers, wine writers, we’ve obviously pumped a lot of our own gas, and we know what that smells like because I am constantly seeing petrol, petroleum used as a descriptor, predominantly for aromatics and predominantly in what grape? Riesling. So, where do we stand on petrol, petroleum, gas, diesel?

PL: But once again, you know, we need to make the guests understand very quickly, you know. The guest is never, when we’re on the floor, it doesn’t matter if we want to give a lecture about why is a Riesling taste like that and what’s a Riesling and we can start to talk about terpenes and all that stuff. But, so if it evokes something to the guest, it’s not the sexiest word, but sometimes you just need to make the guest feel comfortable understanding what’s going to happen. But that word, I have to say, just rings a bell for me, in term of our job. Maybe you’re not going to agree with me on that but the more I work, the more I realize that our guests is never too critic about aromatics when they want to pick us a wine.

So you are talking about terminology right now. In fact, what you are asking us is how are we going to describe the wine to our guest? But the very first stage usually is the guest arrive and is telling us, okay, tonight I’m going to have that and that and that I think on the menu and you know what, I don’t like red wine, I like white and so here we are. Like okay, you like white wine. Fantastic. Which type of whites do you like usually, do you like dry? Do you like sweet? Do you like with a bit of oak? And suddenly you realize that the way we work, is not really describing aromatics, that are secondary.

The very first thing we need to understand is the structure of the wine that the guest is going to look for and that doesn’t require all this fancy aromatics terminology where we can go forever and ever and ever and ever. That petroleum thing comes at the end for me. I need to know first if they’re gonna maybe like Riesling so I need to know if they’re gonna like high acid or not, if they’re gonna like bone dry or off dry, is they’re going to like something with little to no oak, and that is what I need to focus on first and foremost and then the aromatics are going to be secondary. And then you have the whole subjective stuff happening.

JP: That’s 100% how I approach the table and I think the majority of our sommeliers approach the table is, that’s building the dialogue and the words are like big. They’re simple words.

PL: Light.

JP: Light. Big.

PL: Sweeter.

JP: Fresh. Sweet.

PL: Rich.

MS: But petrol and petroleum don’t fall into any of those.

JP: A lot of times…

MS: Has anybody every said…

JP: A lot of times…

MS: My God, this smells like gas.

PL: Yes, but after when we pour the wine and when we talk about the wine-

JP: That’s what I was gonna say. The guest usually will tell me, like oh, there’s a petrol note. ‘Cause we’ll play off that a little. A lot of times the descriptors come after they have the wine and they’ve sat with it.

MS: Have either of you guys ever tasted a river rock? I mean, have you ever come across a river rock in Chablis or Chenin Blanc or maybe a Verdicchi.-

PL: Muscadet.

MS: Muscadet. Ever?

JP: I’ve used river rock often and I grew up fishing and I love, there’s a specific smell that rocks with water going over them have and I’ve used that a ton in describing wines. I think Verdicchio’s great, Muscadet 100%. But that also invokes a very fond memory in myself when I hear those words and those smells and I think that again captures why I like wine so much.

PL: It’s a lot of evocation. You know, you think about a river you think something like a little bit wet, but you see the river. I think most of the people are going to see a beautiful, idyllic river going through and you can hear the cascades, you can hear the noise like, so on our side we need to know why there is that smell is there, we need to understand why there is maybe a slight reduction happening in this type of wine, maybe enhanced by a bit of CO2 and all that kind of thing. So even saying river rock when you turn to something for our guests like silvery wine, more than fruit forward wine that will be a big one. And then what do we do with that occur because sometimes its so extreme that our guest may be a little bit offended by that.

We newd to make our guests dream in a certain way, you know. We need to make our guests very, very happy and we need to evoke a lot of things that are just not absolutely technical because if we start to talk about, oh it’s going to slightly reduce on my nonaromatic grape with a bit of skin contact [crosstalk 00:15:49] and some suit is going to look at me and say, I’m going to get two beers.

JP: I mean I think what we do is, I always tell my sommeliers, and what I like to do when guests come to the restaurant is we try to give them a staycation and if we’re talking Chianti Classico or talking about Barolo, I’m trying to evoke those feelings, those places because that’s always what’s made food and wine feel better for me and at the end of the day, it comes down to the table. Because if there’s four business people having a very intense meeting, it’s an in and out wham bam, thank you ma’am, here’s the wine and they usually order it themselves.

MS: Got some adjectives to throw out at you guys. You guys can guess what I’m trying to talk about here. Rubbery. Scratchy. Round. Supple. Sweet. What do you think I’m describing? What do you think I’m talking about?

PL: At the same time? All of them at the same time?

MS: Yeah. These are sort of adjectives for a certain noun here.

PL: Texture?

MS: Begins with a T. Tannins.

PL: Tannens.

JP: Tannins. All right.

MS: Tannins. Scratchy, rubbery, I mean, can you have sweet tannins, or are we veering off into B.S. land. Do tannins have flavor?

PL: Savor, savor not flavor. Savor, like it’s a feeling on your tongue. Like you can feel-

MS: Sensation.

PL: It’s sensation, what you can feel on your tongue is salt, sweetness, tannin, gas, and a little bit of the bitterness, you know it’s like what everybody can share, I would say. So there are side by side. They can be…

MS: So tannins can be pretty well perceived in your opinion?

PL: They should. They should. They’re part of the very-

JP: The fabric of the wine.

PL: The fabric of the wine. I go back to the structure. The structure is all only common language. Structure is a common language. If something is tannic for me, there is 99.9% of chance that it’s tannic for you. Sweet for me, sweet for you. Acid for me, acid for you. Salty for me, salty for you. Because it’s just amount of cells we have on palette are going to be very, very similar unless you have a disease, a very specific disease that doesn’t allow you to feel that, but otherwise we are on the same boat, all of us. Flavors and aromas are where the subjectivity comes in to the game, but otherwise, we are talking similar language which is why when I say light tannin, you’re going to feel light tannin, I say feel full-bodied tannin, you’re going to feel the same.

JP: We’re upfront with the guest. I don’t say like, oh you know the, I would say that the tannins are bold, like your mouth will, I always use the thing, if you go to the dentist’s office and someone fills your mouth with cotton balls, that’s what a high tannin wine feels like to me. And some people like the masochistic nature of that and some people don’t. So we talk about that feeling ’cause tannin to me is all about how it feels on my palette and then we go from there. ‘Cause there’s a wine for everybody, somewhere.

PL: Just on the tannin, just to, because very few people get that name, especially if they’re ordering wine. I always like to compare with tea. By using something else that’s another feel where people understand it. So you know, is this is going to be pretty tannic, just think when you let your tea bag, 30 second or a minute too late and like too much on your teacup and suddenly it’s like this sat. Okay, I get it. No, you know what, I don’t really like that feeling, I want something a little bit smoother.

MS: It sounds like a key with wine terminology is sometimes drawing it back to more common terminology, everyday terminology, or taking it away from wine and applying it to another beverage, tea or something along those lines can be very helpful.

PL: Just because I’m not an English speaker, so I don’t have all the vocabularies that sometimes I should have, but it’s very easy for me to do comparison with tea or coffee or whatever to explain bitterness. I say you know the thing about an IPA for this kind of Cabernet Franc and suddenly people are like, okay I get it. And it’s very helpful for me in fact, more than technical words.

JP: As a somewhat native speaker of English, I do the exact same thing.

MS: You’re from Texas, right?

JP: I am from Texas, so Texan is a little different. We use really small words. But I think when you, you have to find, it’s about finding common ground with a guest. Tea, coffee, soda, beer, things that are very common make it so much easier to connect on a different level with you guest to provide, and again, our job is to provide them what they want. And that’s important. Because it’s not about getting that one, what do we call it, going for the jugular. That has never been a good sales technique ’cause everyone never likes feeling like they got screwed.

MS: Or soaked.

JP: Or soaked. Exactly.

MS: Let me just ask you both, just off the top of your heads, is there any just one term that just strikes you, oh I’ve seen this term, I’ve heard this term multiple times and to me, it’s just pure B.S. I am not buying this, this does not work for me. Any one?

PL: Well, like what we just said. I don’t think any word is crap but the thing is what helps you understand the wine as a descriptor is something different that’s a judgemental descriptor, that’s the only thing. If you need to use any word to make yourself understand then, absolutely no to describe. If it’s to put a judgment then to use a dismissing word, that is something totally different, and that is where we are at, I think. Description is no problem. I will go in a bigger, there’s not one word.

MS: This is a good conversation because I think we’re realizing that there really isn’t anything that’s necessarily outright out, no good, total crap. For somebody, it could mean something and I think that’s what we’re getting at. With further explanation, if the time is right to further explain, almost everything can be further explained and can be given some legitimacy.

PL: Absolutely. It’s a part to understand the phenomenon and once again we are not analogists and we are not winemakers as a chemical behind the whole aromatics flavors or savors we try to know about them but we are not scientists behind them. Our job is just to know that when we are going to open that bottle of wine we haven’t test for a year and a half we test it in barrels, that wine should taste like that and should feel like that and we should be able to trust me as your customer. And then if we need to explain all the technical stuff, we are going to try our best. And then the guest wants to know even more about that, we are going to put them in touch with the right person to know more about that. But I’m not sure molecule terms gonna ever sell a bottle of wine.

MS: I don’t think it is but I think what I’ve learned here, speaking with you today, this afternoon, is that I’m envious of your ability to verbally explain wine and to communicate with you customers where I’m restricted to the written word and that I think is where a lot of these sort of ridiculous or quasi nebulous wine terms come out. It’s a constant quest for variety to try to describe things multiple times over and over again without just repeating yourself. Not everything can be fresh, fruity, intense, strong. We are victims of our own jobs and the quantity of wines that we deal with.

JP: When I write tasting notes for my staff on a wine, you don’t want to, replace this nebula with this nebula, like cherry is a prominent you know, flavor profile in Nebbiolo so I tend to say like, red fruit. So, but when you’re doing Rioja, let’s say you’re doing a whole review of a bunch of Rioja…

MS: Which I do.

JP: Yeah, how do you do that? Do you try to force? Or do you use a thesaurus? Do you repeat some of the words? It feels like you’d have to.

MS: Well there’s certainly going to be, for instance with Rioja, let’s say we’re talking about Rioja Reserva, Gran Reserva, we’re certainly going to come across some commonalities. Vanilla is going to be, tobacco, oak elements are all going to be elements that I’m not fearful of repeating but I don’t want to describe every wine similarly. I’m trying to see if a wine triggers some sort of sensory memory, be it a flavor memory, an aromatic memory, a place memory and try to draw back to that. But to force myself to simply just use different terminology, I don’t do that as a rule, but I’m sure that subconsciously that that’s happening. Nobody wants to repeat themselves.

PL: Yeah, I think what we have looked to do beyond the floor, and you being in writing, you have to work to use concept and you have a very little amount of time, you have that space on a paper. We are with time, we can take the time, and we can really quickly spend a duration with a guest because it’s all our problem and we have the same problem. We are describing quality into quantity, whatever concept or number and it just never work, you know. So the only feel sometimes I have, and I don’t know for you, is the most unwritten communication with my guests and I think sometimes it’s even more powerful than the word I’m going to use and that unwritten communication, even when I smile and I say you know what, I’m going to try the wine right now, try the wine in half an hour, we take the time and you can’t do that on a piece of paper with writings. And we’re working with wine, and wine for me is time encapsulated in a bottle. So how do we handle that? It’s our challenge, no?

MS: Very different. They’re very different animals. Very different elements of communication. I might write 30 notes over a five, six hour span after tasting 30 wines, that’s not something that you would have to do, but you might have to explain wine verbally to 30 different customers on a different evening. So, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to just revert back to the same things that you’ve said before. We may reach more people in quantity but we have no direct interaction and we don’t know what the response is to what we write at least directly. Occasionally we’ll get some kind of feedback, but that’s rare, whereas you get feedback all the time.

PL: And this way, I can see, we have way more freedom with our vocabulary. We have the freedom, because we’ll talk to the person…

JP: We adjust to our people who are around us.

PL: To our guests. So it can be slang, it can be very elevated, it can be very technical, it can be, I don’t speak English, I don’t speak English, let’s talk with our hands and try to say, you like it, awesome, like just with your hands.

MS: Also, you don’t have to be as unbiased as we do, as I do. You’re free to interject more opinion into what you are-

JP: We’re inherently biased by making a list.

PL: And then there is Instagram and Yelp so it’s, it can make a critical night.

JP: Exactly.

MS: Exactly.

JP: I think the, I know for me, having left retail and getting into restaurants, was more of a selfish thing than anything else because I love the instant gratification of seeing someone happy. It’s fun, it’s a rush. And again, I think Pascaline said it really well, we get to use our body so guests can see when you’re super into something and so it’s the smile, it’s the nonverbal cues, and how do you use your body when you’re describing this wine that you’ve just done 150 times over two days and trying to use these words that connect to people.

MS: I think when I first got into wine, terminology wasn’t as much an issue as just factual basis. Did I have the factual knowledge to understand what was being spoken about. The adjectives, again, some meant things, some didn’t. They didn’t really bother me as much as knowing the factual basis behind wine. Where they come from … what some of the history were behind the chateaux ownership. That type of thing was what was intimidating more so than terminology. Terminology I could slough off and figure it out over time or they were just basic adjectives, you know, they made sense.

JP: I think for me, I mean, I started selling wine legally when I was 21 in Austin, Texas and my biggest challenge was pronouncing all the wines correctly. You know, I’m from BFE, Texas. You know, saying Corton-Charlemagne, or what not, that was really scary to me, ’cause that’s what Pascaline still says. Oh, is that the correct pronunciation? Oh my God, why’d they correct me? But I think, you know, having a customer come up to you and be like, I’d like that Merlot, and then making the choice not to say Merlot and correcting them and being like we’re going to go with Merlot today because you don’t want to make people feel bad. And I was intimidated when I got into wine circles and people were describing wines and I had no idea what they were talking about but I picked up adjectives and then became comfortable in myself to be able to be like listen, this is my own experience and I’m going to describe it how my life allows me to describe it and I think again, that’s the beauty of wine, is it is a personal thing.

PL: It’s going to be a bit different for me ’cause I learned wine first the terminology in French and I am a literature major so I always liked words and I did Greek and all that kind of thing so I always loved words. So the terminology, I was never scared about the terminology per se, I was on the other side, exciting, whoa, what these words mean, like I’m going to learn something new and I did philosophy too, I’m like wow, this is a new concept for me, so what does that concepts relate to into the reality of the wine world and how can I handle that. Then I just realized it was a bit, once again, because I went from philosophy to wine, I realized the importance of not looking like, too obnoxious by using extraordinary specific words.

So the terminologies is always for me, you communicate, you try to say something to someone, your job, my job, is to adapt and to have enough vocabulary understanding to be able to talk to a producer and to be able to talk to a buyer, to be able to talk to wine critics, to be able to talk to a guest, and to have the whole common vocabulary to be able to connect all these words and to know that if you say that word on your circle that means that word on that circle. And I find that as an excitement because and once again, it’s because I studied literature, but I’m very sad to see that we are using over and over the same words.

MS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

PL: And I think a vocabulary, I see it, in French, and I don’t know yet enough in English ’cause it’s still a brand new language for me, but it’s getting poorer and poorer. I think we be more and more, like we should use and be more and more specific. We are losing words and words are fantastic. Words are fantastic to be able to describe nuances. And so I would encourage people to learn more words and to learn more concept just because you are going to be able to express yourself in a more nuanced way and so I’m very sad when I see words disappearing, in fact they’re not being used.

MS: Well we’ll come back with as many words as we possibly can.

PL: Bring me words.

PL:   More words.

MS: Pascaline, Jeff, this was a lot of fun. Great information, great opinions. Excellent. Cheers.

JP: Cheers.

PL: Cheers.

JP: Thank you very much.

PL: Thank you.

MS: Let’s do some shots.