We love to help our French wine club members to really get to know the wine that’s in their glass, so here’s our Sommailier guide to using and understanding wine descriptions!
When you order wine in a restaurant or when you’re buying French wine online, you may have noticed there’s a whole language that wine experts use to describe what’s in the glass. You might hear the sommelier say something like, “This is a fruit forward wine with earthy and herbaceous hints on the nose.” Or your wine lover friends might talk about the “minerality” or “forest floor” aromas in their glass.
But what do these terms actually mean? Obviously there’s no actual fruit (or earth!) added to the wine to give it these aromas and flavours, so where do these characteristics come from? The answer is very simple. These aromas and flavours develop naturally in the skins of the grapes as they ripen and additional flavours and aromas can also be added by ageing the wine in oak barrels or in the bottle.
Almost like human fingerprints, each wine has a unique aroma and flavour profile. Expert sommeliers are able to tell the grape varieties, the vintage, the region and sometimes even the exact winery just from tasting and smelling a particular wine!
Although you might not be able to identify a wine just based on its aromas just yet, understanding a few wine descriptions can really help you discover another level of enjoyment to drinking wine. Here’s an explanation of the most common wine descriptions you’re likely to hear and how to use them to impress your wine snob friends!
When a sommelier says a wine is “fruit forward”, they are talking about the dominance of fruity aromas and flavours over other types of aromas and flavours. Usually these tend to be younger wines that haven’t been aged in oak barrels or in the bottle for an extended period of time, so they retain more fruity character from the grapes themselves.
If you’ve been a Sommailier member for a while, you might have tried the Fleurie from Chateau Montangeron and the Saint Amour from Domaine des Fonds. These two crus from the Beaujolais region are made with the traditional local Gamay grape and are very fruit forward! The typical flavour profile is lots of cherry, raspberry and strawberry aromas and a fresh acidity which makes it a great match for cheese!
This term is a little more abstract, but if you imagine the sensation of licking a stone or even the taste of a salty oyster, that’s pretty close. Wines that have a minerally character tend to be less fruit forward. Typical examples include crisp Chardonnays from Chablis, Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire and wines from the Graves region of Bordeaux which grow on gravel soils.
No one really knows for sure, but it seems that this minerally character found in some wines comes from the soil that the vines grow in. Chardonnays from Chablis often have a chalky character because they grow on limestone, while wines from Graves and Pauillac in Bordeaux have a stony personality thanks to the gravel soils typically found there (as in the photo above).
Again, our Sommailier French wine club members might remember tasting three minerally wines in their quarterly wine shipments; the Domaine de Vauroux Chablis made with Chardonnay, the Domaine de la Renne Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire and the La Fleur des Pins blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris from the Graves region of Bordeaux.
Used for both red and white wines, “herbaceous” describes grassy or herbal aromas and flavours. For red whites this includes things like oregano, rosemary, thyme and even green bell pepper, while for whites you might notice aromas like freshly-cut grass or dried herbs.
One of the best examples is Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley which often has a distinctive grassy or herbaceous character like the Domaine de la Renne bottle that recently featured in our quarterly French wine shipment. For red wines, you may find a green bell pepper note in Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley or in some Bordeaux reds due to the occurrence of compounds called pyrazines. It is also more common to have this kind of aroma or flavour if the weather was cooler or wetter than normal during the ripening period of the grapes.
This mysterious description is often applied to wines that smell earthy or reminiscent of mushrooms. If you can, try to imagine you’re walking through a wood just after it has rained and you’re smelling the air. That’s forest floor.
This rich, earthy aroma is commonly found in Pinot Noirs like fine Burgundies and rich, hearty reds like the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Roque Colombe wine from the Rhone Valley that our French wine club members enjoyed in your recent shipment. Other typically earthy wines are classic Bordeaux wines from the Left Bank.
It is also something that can develop over time as the wine is aged, so it is common to find that older French wines have a distinctive “forest floor” character which some people just love! It’s only usually used for red wines as white wines are more likely to smell minerally or herbaceous (see above) than earthy.
If you smell toast or burnt caramel in your glass, it’s probably a sign that your wine has been aged in oak barrels. When oak barrels are being made, they are often slightly charred inside to add delicious smoky or toasty aromas to the wine. You will find both red and white wines with toasty aromas, although it’s more common to oak age red wines.
So, now you know five really useful wine descriptions which you can use to impress your friends next time you host a dinner or wine tasting! Don’t forget that we can also organise fun French wine tastings for you and your gang in and around San Diego. All you need is a space like your living room or backyard and a bunch of friends – we take care of all the rest! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
Has this whetted your appetite to learn more about French wine? We’re here to help! Why not check out our French wine club. Every three months we send direct to your door three or six bottles of boutique French wines which have been carefully selected by wine experts in France along with detailed information about each wine and food pairing ideas to help you really discover French wine. And as if that wasn’t enough, we also have a wine club gift option for that special wine lover in your life!