I received a question recently from a reader who must remain nameless. I think you can appreciate the witness-protection imperative when you read the e-mail:
"Many of my friends make their own wine and I need a list of euphemistic adjectives to describe it," he wrote. "I realize frank discussion could end the friendships (and future dinners) if I tell the truth. Criticizing your friends' wine is like criticizing their children. Help!!!"
Welcome to my life. I have neighbours who make their own. Joe relies on imported California grapes. Eric gets Joe to crush a proud red from a decades-old concord-grape arbour that grows like something out of Jack and the Beanstalk over Eric's back porch. Both wines are surprisingly well-crafted, but the fruit is not exactly grand cru. I have to make excuses for why Château Joe doesn't meet the quality criteria to warrant a splashy column in The Globe.
More frequently I find myself in the company of professionals whose juice isn't always up to snuff. So, I keep a handy mental glossary of polite winespeak. Here's a list, followed by phrases winemakers themselves often use to cover for their mistakes.
Assertive: A wine can, indeed, have too much flavour – bad flavour. This flexible catch-all covers everything from the foxy, wet-wool character of a red made from native North American vines (hello, concord) to the nail-polish fumes of a defect known as volatile acidity.
Food wine: Here's another versatile descriptor, but it's particularly apt for atrocities with a grip as bracing as battery acid. Nothing protects the taste buds, or tooth enamel, from oenological napalm like a hearty repast. Honourable mentions: vibrant, lively, tangy.
Closed: All wine should taste of fruit. But some young reds can be so cloaked in astringent tannins that the frutiness goes AWOL. It's not necessarily a defect, because the wine may eventually come around in the cellar. But it's hard to predict whether that's going to happen. In the meantime, you're safe with, "This strikes me as a bit closed. I think it needs time."
Bold: Do you grow listless or drowsy after two sips of a syrupy shiraz, jammy zinfandel or high-alcohol New World pinot noir? You've just had a "bold" wine, my friend.
Toasty: Like all euphemisms, this can apply in a sincerely complimentary context, specifically with respect to good wines carrying a nuance of charred wood from barrel maturation. That's why a lumber-loving winemaker would blush to hear that his or her overoaked chardonnay is "toasty."
Layered: Complexity is the hallmark of fine wine. "Layered" is sufficiently vague to acquit you in any circumstance.
Ripe: Grapes should be ripe when harvested, so this word is flattering by definition. When grapes cross the line, though, and develop a cloying raisin-like character, you can diplomatically omit the prefix "over" from "overripe."
Great nose: Too bad about the taste.
And from the winemaker's PR phrasebook:
It's an early-drinking vintage: Substitute "bad weather" for "early-drinking" and you've nailed it. Wines from poor harvests don't cellar well. Drink up soon because this dog is going nowhere.
We picked before (or after) the rains: Autumn can be precarious in many vineyard regions, with precipitation that turns berries into water balloons with diluted flavour. No one picks when the skies of October turn gloomy – or at least no savvy marketer admits to doing so.
Don't you love the matchstick?: No, I don't, at least not when it's highly pronounced. Sulphur compounds, either added as a preservative or produced naturally in tank or barrel through negligent practices, can get out of hand.
We use oak only as a seasoning: Many winemakers who rely on barrel aging trot out this cliché, even when the wine tastes like a two-by-four soaked in grape juice.
The grapes were hand-picked: And I proofread my columns with a pencil. So what?
We farm biodynamically: Then I hope your wine will taste better when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars. It's quaint to follow astrology and bury a cow horn in the vineyard, but if the guy down the road makes better cabernet than you at a cheaper price, he's got my patronage.
Our pinot noir vineyards are planted with the Dijon 777 clone: Maybe that's why I'm getting a note of hot mustard.
This goes beautifully with sushi: So does pilsner. And a six-pack of Urquell is $20 cheaper than a bottle of your riesling.