Reduced, dumb, foxy? Oenophiles use terms mere mortals could swear have been coined to exclude them from the knowing wine world. Here, the jargon is decoded.
IF SOMEONE GAVE you a glass of wine and said it was “foxy,” would you gladly accept it or quickly turn it down? Would you buy a bottle that a wine merchant described as “lifted,” or would you worry that he or she might be trying to pawn off stolen goods? What if a drinker declared that a wine was “volatile”? Would you think it dangerously unpredictable, possibly unsafe to be around?
Perplexing tasting terms like these are frequently employed by wine professionals, much to the consternation of non-oenophiles. What do they mean and why do wine drinkers use them instead of “regular” words? It’s jargon worth learning if you want to appear knowing, or keep up with the pros. Here are short definitions of seven frequently heard yet often quite baffling wine terms.
A budding oenophile might wonder: What kind of wine could possibly taste like cream—and why would anyone want to drink one that did? “Creamy,” however, almost always describes not so much a wine’s taste as its texture, also referred to as “mouthfeel,” another beloved wine-geek word. The quality is most often invoked when talking about a Chardonnay fermented and/or aged in oak barrels instead of stainless steel, or one that has undergone malolactic fermentation, a softening technique for both reds and whites that transforms tart malic acids into softer lactic acids.
This process also produces diacetyl, an organic compound with a distinctly buttery flavor. Diacetyl is the likely reason tasters often use “creamy” in conjunction with the word “buttery,” because both describe a similar kind of wine.
Although it sounds like an intellectual insult, “dumb” in tasting refers to wine in a state of suspended animation, usually after a number of years in the bottle. A dumb wine isn’t dead, so don’t dump it down the drain or belittle its worth; it’s just sleeping or has “shut down” in the bottle for some inexplicable reason.
The presumption, born of a particular wine’s history of development and aging, is that the contents of a dumb bottle will at some point revivify, either to its former glory or in a new but still vibrant stage. Certain wines from the Rhône Valley or Bordeaux, for example, are known to shut down for an indefinite length of time. It generally happens in a bottle’s middle age—somewhere between a few years after the vintage to about a decade old—and lasts for several years. But even that’s not an inviolate rule.
There’s no knowing when this will happen or how long it will last. Even the most seasoned collectors I know have been baffled by wines playing dumb. For this reason, they might buy a case instead of one bottle of a wine. They open and taste several bottles over the years, looking for just the time to drink it—hopefully finding it in the full glory of youth or age, and not in a state of mute middle age.
When collectors assemble to make a comparative analysis of several wines or types of wines from the same producer, region, grapes or from different vintages, the wines aren’t served in groups or herds or packs but in flights.
Restaurants and bars have taken up the term in recent years, and many advertise flights as one of their specialties. But where did the term originate? Perhaps it came from the sensation of flying that one can have after a few glasses. I’ve looked for the source and can’t find one. Not even the exhaustive “Oxford Companion to Wine” has a definition. Maybe some wine drinker years ago read a poem about a flight of birds traveling together and thought the word sounded lovely. It certainly has a nicer ring than the more common collective bird word, “flock,” which sounds like it describes fabric, not wine.
‘You may think that someone lifted the word from a Jimi Hendrix song, but ‘foxy’ really is a tasting term. ’
You may think someone lifted the word from a Jimi Hendrix song, but “foxy” really is a tasting term. Alas, it isn’t one of praise. A foxy wine smells a bit funky and musky—more like an earthy den than the fox who lives in it. Most often it describes American hybrid Vitis labrusca grapes, such as Niagara or Baco Noir, versus such so-called noble grapes from France as Merlot or Cabernet.
Most of these hybrid wines are made in places too cold for sensitive noble grapes to grow (think Minnesota, Ohio and Maine) by very small wineries, so many wine drinkers will never encounter a foxy aroma. If they feel they’re missing out, perhaps they can approximate the experience by sniffing a fox den?
Long before plastic surgeons began practicing lifts of a very different sort, drinkers who encountered wines that were particularly lively, that had a bit of a bounce in the glass, often referred to them as lifted. The lift comes from a generous amount of acidity. The same wine could also be called juicy or bright. But those more commonplace words somehow seem less descriptive, since lifted is what many wine drinkers themselves feel when captivating aromas billow out of a glass.
When referring to price, “reduced” is a positive. But in a wine, it’s a flaw. Reduced or reductive wine hasn’t been exposed to enough oxygen during the winemaking process, which can make it smell a bit sulfurous. Some people claim this is a problem specific to bottles under screw caps, a completely anaerobic environment. (This hasn’t been proven true, by the way.)
This flaw can sometimes be remedied by introducing oxygen to the wine. Swirling your glass around or decanting the bottle may blow off the offending aromas. Then again, it might not.
A volatile wine sounds like something so temperamental a drinker might have to tiptoe around it. But the term actually refers to a wine marked by too much acetic acid. As with reductive wines, the problem arises during winemaking, usually caused by yeast or bacteria.
A wine with excess volatile acidity—seen more often in reds than whites—often smells like vinegar. Wine drinkers talking to one another about this problem use the shorter “V.A.,” as in “Do you get a little V.A. with this wine?” This is not a compliment. Volatile acidity can destroy the aromas and the taste of a wine, and like a volatile person, it can cause a tempest around the table.
By Lettie Teague
December 28, 2015
Source and Image Credit: WSJ.com
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