Pick of the week Ninth Island Pinot Noir 2001 ($19.95, product No. 595124) from Tasmania tastes of strawberry jam, baked apple, mushroom -- and boiled beets. Perfect for Valentine's Day. You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit in the wind and you don't write disparaging words about French wine when you work in the culinary mecca of Lyon.
Lionel Fabrot, editor of Lyon Mag, found this out the hard way last month when a court in nearby Villefranche-sur-Saône ordered his company to pay $525,000 in damages and court costs for what amounts to "libelling" a wine. Fabrot had printed a quotation from connoisseur François Mauss, president of the Grand Jury of European Wine Tasters, who described Beaujolais Nouveau, the fruity, overhyped red released with great fanfare every November, as a " vin de merde" -- literally, crap wine, if you'll pardon my English.
It's one of the largest libel awards ever assessed against the French press and is expected to force the small, employee-owned newsmagazine to go under. According to the 56 wine-producing co-operatives that filed suit, Lyon Mag was guilty of "denigrating a product."
Which tells you at least two things. First, Beaujolais Nouveau producers aren't exactly the PR wizards we've long believed. Nouveau sales depend heavily on exports to places like Canada, where Lyon Mag isn't exactly everyday reading but where interest in press freedom and stories about nutbar legal decisions is quite healthy. (To find out more -- in French -- or to register your support or subscribe to Lyon Mag, visit Lyonmag.com.)
Second, and perhaps more surprising, the judge can't be much of a wine connoisseur. Because when it comes to wine, excrement analogies are generally considered high praise.
Nowhere is this more the case than in France, where old Burgundies in particular are prized for their faint manure-like scent, or as it's more euphemistically known, "barnyard."
Nor is this the only unusual term that is considered a compliment in the wine world. On more than one occasion, I've been ribbed by acquaintances for using "cured meat" to describe certain reds. Yet "bacon" and even "pan juices" are common adjectives used by winemakers in France's Rhône Valley, where the syrah grape, especially in great zones such as Hermitage, can give off such impressions. We're talking subtleties here, but subtlety is what good wine is all about.
I was impressed recently by a self-proclaimed novice who asked me after one of my seminars whether it was legitimate to have detected a smell of "dog hair" in a pinot noir that she quite enjoyed. Well, she could have been reading straight from the Aroma Wheel, the standard educational prop developed by Ann Noble, a distinguished professor of oenology at the University of California at Davis. The wheel groups common wine aromas into various categories and subcategories to aid tasters in articulating their impressions. Under the category "chemical" is the entry "wet wool/wet dog."
Other terms on the Aroma Wheel include "concrete," "sweaty," "burnt toast," "soy sauce," "plastic," "filter pad," and "sauerkraut." The last is sometimes associated with red wines that have undergone a secondary chemical transformation known as malolactic fermentation. Sauerkraut is a smell I would have used to describe a subtle note in the aforementioned pinot noir. Other tasters might refer to it as "boiled beets." By the way, the wine in question is the terrific Ninth Island Pinot Noir 2001 ($19.95, product No. 595124) from Tasmania, which also tastes of strawberry jam, baked apple and mushroom.
Perhaps the most infamous smell applied to wine -- sometimes pejoratively, sometimes not -- is cat's urine. It's a sign of early-harvested sauvignon blanc, a grape that tends to taste of gooseberries, wet stone and gun metal.
Almost every wine pejorative has its euphemistic counterpart. For cat's urine, it's "crushed green coriander." Sounds appealing all of a sudden, doesn't it? In New Zealand, source of some of the world's most boisterously scented whites, there's even a brand called Cat's Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.
Among my favourite wine scents are "tar," common to northern Rhône syrahs and Piedmontese Barolos, and "leather," which leaps out from some old Bordeaux and Burgundies. Very old European reds can smell, according to connoisseurs of a certain class, like "sweaty saddle."
Referring to German riesling as having a bouquet of "petrol" or "diesel" never fails to elicit a chuckle or two from readers or friends. "I want oil derivatives in my gas tank, not my drinking glass," people will predictably quip. Other readers, meanwhile, will happily pay $30 and $40 to get that scent from a good bottle of Mosel. One expensive riesling I tasted years ago actually put me in mind of the other end of the internal-combustion reaction -- the exhaust pipe. It was delicious.
A favourite encomium of U.S. wine critic Robert Parker is "pencil lead," or "graphite," common to many French reds. In some cases, the hyper-adjectival Parker will distinguish between generic graphite and "freshly sharpened pencil."
Two weeks ago, my editor raised a flag over "underbrush," so I cut it out. In France, few editors would bat an eye at -- and certainly no winemaker would sue over -- sous-bois. Literally, it means "under the woods" and is used to denote the damp earth of the forest, a prized note found in everything from Bordeaux to Burgundy to reds from the southern Languedoc region.
And those are just the laudatory terms. Defects have their own set of zany adjectives: wet socks (cork taint); bad eggs (hydrogen sulphide); nail polish remover (volatile acidity); and more.
My favourite derogatory wine term is "baseball cards" -- the unmistakable pink-bubble-gum bouquet that many professional tasters, at least in North America, associate with thin, immature French wines based on the gamay grape, wines that also go by a more formal name: Beaujolais Nouveau.
I suppose it's a good thing I don't work in Lyon. email@example.com