Many people admit to being hesitant about describing wine. "I like wine," they say, "but I don't know how to talk about it." Fear of making a mistake may so seize them that they dare not ever tread in a tasting room. They imagine that an all-knowing employee pouring for an hourly wage will judge their knowledge, find it lacking, and serve as executioner. "Yummy raspberry? I don't think so, honey. Try cassis and Chinese five-spice—or get back together with your friend, Carlo Rossi. He misses you."
For others, it may simply be tedious to catalogue these fruit and mineral corollaries. Thinking about it too hard, one may forget to enjoy the glass before it's empty. Well, it's enough for a $4.99 bottle of wine to slake one's thirst. But at $60, it had better be an ambrosial admixture of marionberry and Royal Anne Cherry—throw in a bouquet of allspice and toasted cashew, if it's no extra charge.
There are no hard and fast rules. Blueberries ought to taste like blueberries. Wine, not so much. The wine wheel is merely a signpost. Descriptors help to identify what it is we like about a wine and allow us to tell the good news to others. Wine may not only taste similar to some of our favorite fruits, but also remind us of nonfood memories. "Cigar box" is a favorite, although the number of wine drinkers who remember their grandfather's cigar box may be dwindling. Many a Pinot Noir has been saddled with the description of a "barnyard" aroma. To urban folks, that sounds derogatory, but rural France is Pinot's first home, and to many, that conjures fond rustic associations. (It probably makes a difference whether we're talking about wet or dry hay, horse barn or sheep pasture.) I'm particularly fond of Pinot that is redolent of strawberry conserve plus hay and scan tasting notes, mostly in vain, for this.
In honor of this week's Zinfandel Advocate and Producers event, I submit a fresh New World descriptor: "Junkyard." Hang in there. It's for those few Zins that exhibit two aromas in harmonizing measure. One is the typical bramble-berry fruit; the other a mineral element, oil. Like "barnyard," "junkyard" is not necessarily good or bad. Petrol has long been used to describe Riesling with no harm intended. (A recent wine magazine issue mentions petrol or "home heating oil" 23 times!)
Imagine a junkyard at the end of a country lane. A light afternoon breeze brings the scent of oily old engine blocks and rusted old cars intermingled with riotous blackberry vines that spill over them, in a not environmentally sound, but surely photogenically rustic, scene.
Junkyard is not a descriptor for every Zin, or even for every Zin fan (if they've never been to the pick-and-pull). You can take, leave it or, better yet, come up with your own. The more the private mystery between tongue and mind elicits a unique, memorable experience, the more you're getting out of wine.
Yummy strawberry-barnyard: 2006 Siduri Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
Nostalgic junkyard: 2005 Kokomo Timber Crest Zinfandel.