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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I recently came across a tasting note that described a wine as “alpine” in character. What does that imply?

—Leah, Montreal

Dear Leah,

That’s a pretty specific term, and while I haven’t personally seen it used as a tasting descriptor, I know “alpine” typically refers to the European mountain range known as the Alps.

It’s possible the author is referring to wines actually made in the Alps—like wines from Switzerland, Italy’s Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta regions, or France’s Savoie—but I think the author is invoking a personal memory that a wine inspired, and I understand how that happens. Over the years, wines have reminded me of very particular or private memories that might not translate beyond my own frame of reference. For example, I grew up with a sassafras tree in my backyard, so I’m very apt to pick up those resinous, citrusy, spicy, almost licorice notes. So when I pick up this note in a wine, I avoid saying “sassafras,” rather picking more common terms like sarsaparilla, wintergreen, clove or root beer instead.

Though I’ve never been to the Alps, I’m guessing “alpine” refers to a mixture of fresh plant life, anchored in pine notes. A similar term I use is “forest floor,” and there’s also the French term “sous bois.” The next time you’re in a wooded area, take a deep breath. There might be a mixture of fresh and dried leaves, a slight note of decay, crushed pine needles or maybe the scent of fresh herbal notes lingering in the background. I’ve most often seen forestlike terms used to describe Pinot Noirs, but it’s not unusual to see it refer to other types of wines.

—Dr. Vinny

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