Interview: Andrew O’Brien

What are the most common words you use to describe wines?
I tend to be quite descriptive, for example I love full bodied, vivacious and fruit driven wines. I also tend to focus in on the fruit flavors in wine like blackcurrant in reds and the gooseberry and passion fruit in a sauvignon blanc, which is always amusing to the wine novice because it smells of these fruits but all wine is only made from grapes.

Would you say many wine terms are quite culturally specific? For example, what might usually be described as rhubarb, might to someone who grew up in Asia recall hawthorne flakes.

Absolutely, I recall when I first started in the industry in Australia someone was describing a wine saying it smelt of asparagus. I grew up with a mother of Italian background who would serve us fresh asparagus char-grilled and smothered in olive oil, salt flakes and ground black pepper, so I didn’t get it at all. But upon more questioning, I found that he was talking about an old Aussie favorite, which was tinned asparagus often served on dry biscuits and it smelt completely differently. However, a lot of wine terms are universal. For example, if I describe a wine as opulent, it means that the wine is rich, smooth and bold, such as the Penfolds Grange Shiraz.

What are some ways to get around confusion?
A simple rule to remember is that most wines from France or Europe are named after the region. On the other hand, wines from the United States, Australia and other non-European countries are named after the variety of grape used. For example, one of Australia’s most renowned wine brands, Penfolds, names its wines according to the variety of grapes used, such as the Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon. A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous but go to tastings, ask your wine merchants and never be afraid to ask. Wine is a complex category but lots of fun once you jump in and start asking questions. Don’t let yourself be intimidated—at the end of the day it’s a great social lubricant.

What words do you wish people would use more to describe wines?
I have a saying that “wine should be taken regularly not seriously”. So describe what you smell and what you taste, look for wines and enjoy wines that you like the taste of not what someone tells you to like.