It’s not easy to translate sensation into words, but sommeliers, retailers, and even winemakers are under constant pressure to do it. Much of the rhetoric that ensues is fanciful and frankly useless, but a handful of terms now seem to have entered what might be called wine’s universal, if unofficial, lexicon—a set of terms most experienced wine tasters can agree on and find both meaningful and useful. Among these are three now commonly used descriptors: minerally, herbaceous, and vegetal.
These terms are useful because they make a connection with things that everyone is familiar with and so provide (or should) for the possibility of a common non-specialist vocabulary for talking about wine.
Although one of them, minerality, is perhaps a bit of a stretch on this point. We don’t routinely eat stones or soil. It’s easier, or should be, to recognize something that expresses herbaceousness or a flavor that’s reminiscent of a vegetable, since our diet presents these sensations to us pretty much every day.
To test the theory, I first scoured the wine tasting database I’ve been keeping for 20 years for recent notes that included the words mineral, herbal, and vegetal with their common variations and chose three wines that seemed to be particularly powerful examples of each for Chris to taste on air. His job was to connect each wine with the descriptor I used in my notes. But before I report on the results, let’s have a bit of background on flavor in wine.