One way to learn how to discern the various descriptors used to characterize the flavors commonly found in wine reviews is to sample items such as fresh strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries and blueberries, as well as using a bottle of vanilla extract and a small bottle of Crème de Cassis.
With each of the above fruits, begin by crushing the berries to release their natural aromas, then sniff each berry and taste them. One way to stop the flavors and aromas contained in these berries from running together and overwhelming your olfactory senses is to take a sniff of coffee beans in between sniffing and tasting each type of berry. The purpose of the coffee beans is to cleanse the nose and allow you to more easily differentiate and detect new aromas.
The bottles of vanilla and Crème de Cassis are only used to sniff, not taste. Vanilla is one of the more common aromas found in both red and white wines, while the Crème de Cassis (a black currant-flavored liqueur) is only contained in red wines -- most notably in Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux wines.
Now it is time to drink some wine and try to describe the aromas and flavors that you are able to detect.
I think it is very useful to record on paper your observations about what you are tasting – and having said that, the most important thing to remember is don’t worry about being wrong with the descriptors that you use. There is not a wrong opinion because everyone tastes things differently, with some people being able to detect more flavors and nuances than others. Also, I might describe a wine as having earthy aroma and you might think it smells like mushroom, in reality we are both describing the same aroma using different words -- earthy, forest floor, damp leaves and mushrooms are different descriptors that are commonly interchanged.
While the choices of red wines are endless, some I would suggest trying as an experiment with the fruits and liquids described above include the 2008 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County at $12, the 2007 Beringer Merlot from Napa Valley at $18 or the 2007 St. Francis Merlot from Sonoma County at $18.
If you like a lighter styled wine, the 2008 Castle Rock Pinot Noir from the Central Coast of California at $12 and the 2008 Acacia A Pinot Noir at $16 are both quite nice, and for something fun try the 2009 Castello Banfi Centine at $10.
The fruits I chose to use for this column were specifically designed for red wines. If you are interested in learning common descriptors for white wines, try lemon, melons, apples, grapefruit, pears, apricot, butter and toasted bread.
In addition to using fruits and berries, there are other products available that assist in learning to detect the different aromas routinely found in wines.
One such product is Le Nez Du Vin, which consists of 54 different vials, each of which labeled with an aroma normally associated with wine.
Le Nez Du Vin also makes smaller kits that are specific to red or white wines.
Once you begin experimenting with trying to understand the different aromas and flavors that are associated with wine, it is amazing how quickly you are able to identify flavors and drinking wine becomes much more enjoyable.
Jim Rawe, a family attorney in Bradenton, is an avid collector of fine wines. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.