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Bramble Ramble

The thorny problem of describing wine

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The vocabulary of winetasting is unduly maligned.

But statements like that are easy to make—you can call the language that's used at winetasting rooms and in printed tasting notes snobbish and obscurantist all you like, but that gets boring in good time, too. More fun and interesting is the question: how much more might you enjoy the wine you're drinking if you forget about the notion that anyone is saying these are the "right" words to use when talking about wine, and instead free your mind to associate—ramble, if you will—in the real-world experience of aromas and flavors you can relate to?

Just take the descriptors "riparian" and "brambleberry," for instance. A riparian zone is an area along a creek or river that's typically thick with vegetation. A brambleberry is a berry, like a raspberry or blackberry, grown on a thorny bush that thrives in riparian zones—see where this is going?

As a descriptor for wine, brambleberry covers an experience that's beyond any single berry—if a wine smells exactly like a market-fresh basket of raspberries, there's no reason not to say just that. Late summer is the ideal time to get both words in your aroma repertoire.

Recently I took a bike ride on the West County Trail in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley appellation on a hot day. A section of the trail is unpaved as it skirts brambly thickets that cloak Atascadero Creek. Perhaps encouraged by extra soil moisture from the rains of last winter, blackberry bushes have offered a reprise crop of big, red, unripe berries, even while the extra heat of this summer turns their neighbors into inedible crisps before they can ripen. But even more are perfectly ripe and sweet; volatizing in the heat, they perfume the air, their aroma mingling with accents of stagnant water, green leaves and silty dust. That's what I think of when I sample a wine that smells like that: fruity but earthy, not supermarket-fresh and not baked.

That being said, the most memorable Zinfandel I tasted lately was not riparian in the slightest: Frank Family Napa Valley Zinfandel ($37) has a frankly grapey liqueur, almost porty aroma—but note that port is not necessarily made from overly ripe grapes, and this wine, while sweetly suggesting baked figs and toasty Mexican chocolate, is neither cloying nor hot. Standout barbecue wine—but for teriyaki marinated steak or veggies, not burgers.

For burgers, go with the smoky, blackberry wine–scented Artezin 2015 Old Vine Mendocino Zinfandel ($18), or the green peppercorn-spiced and brambleberry-and-tomatillo-jam-flavored Cline 2015 Ancient Vines Lodi Zinfandel ($14.99).

Ah, the taste of summer.

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