When I was in high school, I signed up to be a Rotary Exchange Student and ended up going to The Netherlands. I say “ended up” because originally I was supposed to go to Italy. Alas, that trip was cancelled 6 weeks before I was scheduled to leave (long story, but I would like to state for the record that it had NOTHING to do with me–Scouts honor….and before you ask, yes I was a Girl Scout, thankyouverymuch–for a whole year!). In hindsight, it was probably for the best that I didn’t go to Italy, as I don’t think I would have moved back. But that is just a huge sidebar that doesn’t actually have anything to do with this post other than to lament at how close I was to moving to Italy.
When I arrived in the Netherlands, I was sent to a two-week crash course Dutch camp where I lost my voice learning a lot of useful phrases like “ik weet het niet” (I don’t know), which is exceptionally useful when asked random questions like (on the first day of school) “Are you new here?” As the year progressed, my Dutch became much more fluent and I picked up many colorful phrases and colloquialisms. I think my favorite is “helaas, pindakaas” just because it’s just fun to say. Loosely translated, it means alas or c’est la vie (if you want to be fancy), but literally translated it means “oh well, peanut cheese” (although the Dutch would argue that pindakaas is peanut butter, but I SAY that if pinda=peanut and kaas=cheese, then pindakaas is peanut cheese).
I know what you’re thinking “why is she even telling me this?” Well, thank you for asking. It is because this month’s Wine Writing Challege (MWWC #32) is TRANSLATION, as selected by last month’s winner Nesli of Wi.Nes. And to me, nothing says “translation” quite like fumbling through learning a language while living in another country for a year.
Which brings me wine…because doesn’t everything?!? The world of wine easily has its own language and when you are new to wine, navigating it is a lot like fumbling through learning a language while living in another country. This extends beyond just the varietals that are a mouthful to say [ahem, gewürztraminer]. There is also the methodology and just try saying oenology after a bottle or two! But I think that it is the descriptors that can leave people a little lost in translation, if you will.
I believe this is mainly because taste is subjective and how I describe something may not be how you describe something. For example, if you ask me to describe the 1997 Sister Creek Cabernet Blend, I would say that it was oaky, medium-to-full bodied, with a lingering cherry finish. My BFF would say it was so dry it knitted her tongue a sweater. Incidentally, I think this became her go-to descriptor to whether or not I would like a wine: will it knit your tongue a sweater? Yes? Then Sherry will love it!
Some descriptors are easy to translate: red. white. rosè. blush. fruity. sweet. vanilla. cherry.
Others might require a bit of translating/clarification, especially to those who are new to the language of wine, like the following (while I didn’t look them up, I’m sure my descriptions are fairly accurate):
- Nose smell
- Finish aftertaste
- Vintner winemaker
- Dry leaving your mouth feeling like you drank sandpaper
- Oaky the taste of drinking tree bark
- Tobacco tastes like smoking a cigarette, but without the gross chemicals–just the tasty wine ones!
- Buttery as if a stick of butter was added. Not the fake movie theatre butter, but the good stuff.
- Dirt drinking freshly tilled earth, but in a good way of course
- Jammy lots of fruit flavor, like you just got smacked with a fruit pie….or jam. That’s probably a better analogy.
- Full-bodied like a painting by Rubens
- Earthy see Dirt.
- Chewy you’ll need a knife and fork to drink these wines
- Floral yes, like flowers
- Spicy usually of the pepper variety–black pepper, bell pepper, and if you’re really want to sound snobby, white pepper (just kidding….sort of)
And then there are those extra fun descriptors that make some wine drinkers question if they actually want to drink the wine in their glass. You know those descriptors that make you ask (hopefully to yourself and not out loud to the vintner): WTF did you put in this?!?!?! Don’t worry, the alcohol kills all the germs! Again, I didn’t look up these exact definitions, but I’m sure they are close.
- Leather smells like you bought a really expensive handbag, but is much tastier
- Smoky think campfire and that annoying smoke that blows in your face regardless of where you stand
- Knit Your Mouth A Sweater see Dry and add “very, very, very” in front of it
- Petrol yes, like gas–so no smoking and turn off your car engine before consuming
- Pencil Shavings don’t panic…I’m quite sure no pencils were harmed in the making of these wines
- Wet Dog just like in real life, this is never a good descriptor and should be dumped down the drain (the wine, not the dog). DO NOT COOK with it (the wine–and, well, also the dog). No one wants “wet dog” food–except maybe the dog.
- Forest Floor tastes just like you are hiking in the Pacific Northwest, but without hiking or the need to travel to the Pacific Northwest
- Botrytis a mold that smells a bit dusty and like you’re about to spend a lot of money
Finally–my personal favorite descriptor–even though I try to avoid wines with this description because they always makes me simultaneously think “how do you know what that tastes like?” and “this is why I prefer reds!”
- Cat Pee yeah, you read that correctly. usually associated with Sauvignon Blancs Tasting Note: try to refrain from asking the vintner if it was added–chances are you don’t really want to know.
Of course, the best way to learn is to drink taste a lot. It definitely makes translating a lot more fun*.
PS–Thanks to my wino friends who offered up the descriptions they use most frequently. And if I didn’t text you for that information, it’s not that I don’t love you–it’s just that I don’t think you drink enough wine.
*this easily applies to both wine and languages.