The lithe brunette, giggling after having downed half-a-bottle of unwooded Chardonnay, pointed at the pea-size yellow item on her plate with a mauve-nailed forefinger. “What is that?” she asked of the little round fruit that had been halved and settled happily on a sliver of smoked rainbow trout the colour a slow, fiery sunset over Zanzibar.
I thought the woman was kidding. But as she was using the passing seconds to have another gulp of wine, I knew she was awaiting an answer. “It’s a gooseberry,” I said. “A Cape gooseberry.”
Relieved, she stuck her fork into the fruit, sending a spurt of sap splashing onto her bejewelled wrist. “Oh,” she said. “Is that what it looks like.” She popped half a gooseberry into her mouth. “Tastes nice, too.”
The whole thing came as a bit of a surprise. For said brunette and fond friend uses the word “gooseberry” at least 12 times a month in the copious wine-marketing collateral she turns out. The “gooseberry notes of Sauvignon Blanc” and “hint of Cape gooseberry in cool-climate Chenin Blanc” of which she has been – and continues – writing, was penned without her knowing what an actual gooseberry looks nor taste like.
After the meal, gooseberries eaten and digested, we sipped on a Vin de Constance 2015, which she instantly described as having a “chunk of apricot on the mid-palate”. I considered ordering a couple of chilled apricots to see whether they would raise another query but let the thought slide.
The use of fruits as a basis for wine descriptors is a non-negotiable part of wine jargon for purposes of marketing or reviewing or just plain wise-arse talking. But are the bearers of wine wisdom truly up to speed with the taste and flavours of the fruits they deploy to describe certain wines?
I have been pondering over this for a few years. Spending loads of time with wine writers, marketers and communication specialists, I can count on half a hand the times I have ever seen any of them eat from the fruit-platters laid out at harvest tables and other spreads. Yet were you to read the sentences and paragraphs following a wine tasting, you would swear they spend half their days in fruit orchards, bramble bushes and berry fields tasting, smelling and taking notes as the purple sap runs down their chins.
This is why I find summer such a season of major importance for a wine person. Because it is now that I, as a wine communicator, have access to a broad spectrum of in-season fruit with which one can sharpen the palate, hone the taste-buds and reboot the hard-drive of flavour and taste. So that when the next Merlot or Chardonnay comes around, you actually do know what a plum or a nectarine tastes like when penning that brilliant sentence of wine critique. At the Wine Tasting Boot Camp I present the class spends as much time tasting, smelling and sensing fruit than they do any one wine variety. It is one thing having a knowledge of wine and an ability to identify grape varieties, terroir origin and maturity. But to describe and communicate the taste experience of the wine, to pass-over the pleasure and personality it evokes, is another skill all together. Here a firm handle on the texture, aroma and flavours of fruit is a helpful and enjoyable bonus.
Dark fruits, obviously, bear various similarities to red wines. And with the stacks of plums, blueberries, strawberries and mulberries to be found, it is a great time to analyse these fruits and to taste the similarities they share with certain red wines – with which the wine-lover is obviously well-acquainted.
A ripe, juicy plum, for example, just screams “Merlot”. Succulent fructose-driven juice overwhelms the senses when biting into a weighty purple-red plum. Once the sweetness has subsided, the clip of tannin from the skin and the acidic centre near the pip joins the dense fruit flavour to offer a taste of what is undeniably Merlot wine.
Experience a strawberry bursting between your teeth, and there is a lot of Pinot Noir going on. Especially if the berry is ripe and tender, and the Pinot Noir vines from which the wine is made are young. The bright, sunny note of strawberry with a firm wad of acid and a slightly earthy cusp immediately has one thinking Pinot. And if you missed cherry season, your Pinot Noir knowledge just reversed a year. No descriptor of Pinot Noir is possible without having chewed, sucked and swallowed copious amounts of succulent cherries.
Stuff a handful of mulberries into the mouth. Let them settle before asserting pressure with the tongue to crush said mulberries against the roof of that eating and talking instrument of yours. I mean, if this does not have you nodding “Shiraz” those are either not mulberries or you’ve been glugging counterfeit Shiraz for the past few years. Mulberries have a vegetal spiciness to them that blend with the ultra-sweet nectar to truly evoke memories of Shiraz wines from Barossa to Wellington, Rhône to Swartland.
For white wine comparisons, the relevant fruits are now just heading into ripeness. Early pears are around which, thinly sliced and judiciously sucked, will have one thinking of a wooded Chenin Blanc as the pear harbours a spicy edge. Just like a ripe apple of the yellow variety.
A crisply racy green apple, well, munch on that and Cap Classique sparkling wine has to be top of mind. One way to determine whether a wine is bottle-fermented to true tradition is to look for a bit of apple flavour. If it ain’t there, the wine did not go through the lees-aging in bottle.
Lemons and limes are just coming into season, and these are truly vital fruits for the wine-taster. First-up, biting into a wedge of lemon or lime every day pretty much does to the tasting faculty what a brisk set of free-weight training does for the body. The acidic citrus wakes the palate, like pronto, and calls all the taste-buds into action, training and conditioning them to be alert and sharp so as to taste with forceful decency and superior fitness.
As the palate adjusts to the invasive sourness of lemon or lime, the true beauty of citrus can be sensed. Riveting freshness. Complexity of sugars suppressed by natural acids alive and well. That life-affirming bracing sense of well-being a chomp of fat ripe lemon passes across. Now, if this is not Chardonnay it is time to give-up wine-tasting and start knitting, pruning roses or collecting Empire-dated postage stamps.
Oh, and then there is the metallic-sweet zip of the Cape Gooseberry. It speaks Sauvignon Blanc. To blondes, brunettes and anybody willing to listen and taste.
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