Friday, July 26, 2013

What does gunflint taste like? The shared vocabulary of wine tasting notes

Earlier this week, my former colleague Jon Bonné published a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that included this sentence:
This narrow, cool slice of Napa engenders the dramatic flavors found in Kongsgaard wines - an intense sensation of preserved lemon and gunflint, and what Alex describes as a figgy character. 
I asked on Twitter, "Does anyone know what gunflint tastes like?" Sorry Jon, but I suppose I was mocking you, though obliquely and anonymously. I was surprised to learn that not only do some wine professionals claim to know what gunflint tastes like, they expected me to also.

Here's my favorite:

He wasn't alone.

My friend Jason Smith, a MS with one of the highest-profile sommelier jobs in America (head of wine at the Bellagio in Las Vegas), helpfully replied, "It's in Chablis and other very mineral, probably unoaked wines." I'm assuming Jason knows this because it's how sommeliers are taught to express a specific shared taste experience.

However, I'm going to guess that nobody alive in the United States today has actually tasted gunflint. From, the only definition of gunflint is "a small sharp flint fashioned to ignite the priming in a flintlock." And what's a flintlock? You need to see it:

I can't dispute that some Chardonnays may not only smell, but taste like a small implement in a type of weapon that hasn't been used in a century. That may be where the reference came from initially; perhaps it stayed in the wine vocabulary despite disappearing from our lives. Heck, Chardonnay might taste like any number of plants that are extinct, or minerals that could be extracted from the surface of the moon.

It's the shared language of wine I find interesting; it's like a shared taste hallucination. British wine writers frequently taste "pear drop" in wine, and I have no idea what that means. The wine geek community could decide to describe that "gunflint" taste sensation as "moon rock," and if enough people agreed, that would be the definition.

I was telling this story to food blogger Amy Sherman, and she laughed: bewildering tasting notes are a shared source of humor. She said, "I recently saw somebody describe something as having dried rose petals. Dried rose petals!" And I said, "I know exactly what that smells like."

What's your favorite incomprehensible tasting note? 

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CJ and PK said...

"It was like thin treacle poured over a flagstone floor" – from

rapopoda said...

This is an interesting and entertaining topic to think on.

I imagine that there are genuine associations which people make between what they smell in a wine and the actual think to which analogize. Indeed molecules can be measured and their can be something approaching objectivity in some cases.
Additionally, I expect that their are genuine associations (aroma/flavor images?) that people make, where the molecular relationship is less clear. This is an interesting one to me. I have to wonder, for the second case, what an fMRI would show when people have a smell memory vs smelling the thing against which the wine is be analogized. Is there a different between how the brain makes the "image" where there is a molecular basis in the like aromas vs where the image seems constructed by memory and more complex activities? I wonder.

That said, the sense I get (unscientific, from experience only), is that most people are full of shit in most circumstances. A bit of a lemming effect. I'm always amused when I hear fellow Americans calling out "gooseberries" in Sauv Blanc at tastings. I enjoy asking "when was the last time you had a gooseberry?" and then seeing them squirm. Likewise with the ubiquitous "Loamy earth". It is fun to ask how the properties, aromas and flavors of "loamy earth" differ from other sorts of earth. Its fun to watch them sweat.

"AndrewSGHall" is right in one of his points: Sense vocabulary does require experience. As for "gunflint" not being a metaphor, well, perhaps he should reflect on the difference between literal and metaphoric

As for gunflint, I got to fire a period musket years ago, memory is notoriously unreliable. However, I'm fairly confident that the main aroma was the result of the gunpowder oxidizes (sulfur aromas, mostly, I'm guessing(?)) and not the flint used. I don't recall quartz-like minerals having much of a smell on their own. I'm guessing the same for flavor, but never licked one to my knowledge

So good for you for calling Bonné out!

Christopher said...

It's not a wine description, but a whisky one from Whisky magazine:

"Cigarettes ground into the floor of an old newspaper factory."

Not only does that tell me nothing useful, it sounds disgusting.

Christopher said...

It's not a wine description, but a whisky one from Whisky magazine:

"Cigarettes ground into the floor of an old newspaper factory."

Not only does that tell me nothing useful, it sounds disgusting.

Robert said...

I think that most people are not sure what they are tasting or cannot verbalize the smell or taste sufficiently. So when someone says "Goosberries" for sauvingnon blanc, but never have eaten a gooseberry,I think they are imagining what a goosberry would tatste like.
As for professional wine writers, the wine descriptors are what I deem verbal masturbation.

Unknown said...

When sharing an aged Burgundy with a friend he described the aroma as something like uncovering a dead squirrel that was buried under wet leaves for six weeks.

Jonas Landau, everydaywineguy said...

I wish I could remember exactly what wine it was for but a reviewer once used "cat pee" as an aroma descriptor in a positive review. Now we have cats - in the house, barn etc. - and "cat pee" scents could not possibly be a positive attribute.

Isaac James Baker said...

Great line: "it's like a shared taste hallucination"

Larry Brooks said...

In Wine Flavor Chemistry by Clarke and Bakker, they state, "even when you recognize Cheddar cheese correctly, it is difficult to describe it in any other way than cheesy or Cheddar like, which does not convey much information. Wine experts have developed sometimes quite extravagent sets of words to describe a wine, but there does not seem to be a ready-made vocabulary to draw on to describe the smells of wine." Broadbent attempts this with a list of 200 "common" descriptors, and a further 100 or so more obscure ones, but essentially you're on your own in this area. I don't think it's particularly helpful or even clever to make fun of what is an honest attempt to put into words what resists verbal transcription. The Chardonnay flavors that Alex is attempting to describe are in the sulferous catagory, what is sometimes called minerality, and are not that far off from the smell of burning gunpowder. You don't have to have fired a flintlock to understand what is being conveyed here. It seems to me that mocking it is what is off target.

Fred Swan, said...

In Gary Vaynerchuk's 100 Wines book, he attributed the aroma of ostrich poop to a wine. That raised two questions for me. One, how could you possibly know. Two, how could such a wine be on a list of 100 must-try bottles.

As far as the gun flint thing goes, two comments. First, jon said sensation, not flavor. So he could have been talking about aroma. I smelled that just two weeks ago with nary a flintlock in sight. I was in a wine shop in Sancerre. The owner picked up two pieces of flint from a local vineyard and vigorously rubbed them together. The resulting aroma was strong and unmistakable.

Wineskillguy said...

Check with Fred and Wilma.

Eron Rauch said...

One of my favorite wine-taste vocabulary words came from a outing to the Santa Ynez wine country with friends. It was one of my friend's first time wine tasting. We were sampling a particularly over-wrought cherry-leaning pinot noir that had been aged in new oak. Trying to include the novice, we asked what she thought the wine tasted like. She looked confused then and she blurts out, "Tastes like those cherry Pillsbury Pastry Strudel things." Anyone who grew up in the '80s will know exactly what that fake cherry "pastries" (a Pop Tart competitor) with the packet vanilla frosting tastes like. We all started laughing uncontrollably because it was the PERFECT, most accurate description for one of those cherry fruit and oak American pinots. Even the winemaker was laughing and agreed. To this day I still use "cherry Pillsbury Pastry Strudel" for that class of wines.

(Also, I love Prager Port's description for their white port, which is "Popcorn Jelly Belly").