I was off on a little wine-tasting excursion over the weekend. We went to Keuka Lake, one of New York State’s Finger Lakes. Wine has been made in that area for about a century, but it’s been only a half century since Dr. Konstantin Frank introduced vinifera grapes to the area – the kind of grapes usually used in the non-benighted world to make wine. The grapes that had been used in New York before – and are still used for some products – tend to produce what Tony Aspler has called “block and tackle wines”: one drink and you can walk a block and tackle anyone.
The climate in New York can be hard on some varieties of grapes, so the winemakers are always looking to improve their stock with something that tastes good and is also sufficiently hardy. Enter traminette, a pleasant little white wine grape that is now being used by a number of the wineries in the area. It is a hybrid created in about 1965 at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign by Herb Barrett. It would be fun if Barrett had been trying to create a kind of urban champagne, but actually he just want to make a nice table grape that had some of the taste of Gewürztraminer. He made it by crossing Gewürztraminer with the hybrid Joannes Seyve 23.416 (does that look like a scriptural reference?). He sent some of it to the experimental grape breeding program at Cornell University, which is at the south end of Cayuga Lake, which is another one of the Finger Lakes. It has spread from there because it survives and it tastes good.
What does it taste like? Well, I’m not here to give you wine tasting notes. You would do better to go see for yourself. I will tell you that it’s reminiscent of Gewürztraminer but toned down, with some flavours that might remind you of pinot blanc or vidal or just maybe Riesling. Or, if you aren’t a wine geek: it’s a nice, moderately fruity white wine, not buttery and not too tart or crazy, but just a little quirky.
What I am here to give you is word tasting notes. Come on, now: we have the word right in front of us. Let’s taste it together. Say it slowly: /træ mi nɛt/. It starts crisp on the tip of the tongue /t/, with a little rolling release into the liquid /r/; the vowel can be realized a bit harder as /æ/ or a bit milder as /a/. The lips come together softly /m/ as though considering a taste. Then another vowel, which can be high and sweet /i/ or more restrained /ɪ/ or rather subdued, almost dull /ə/. The tongue tip presses in again softly and quickly /n/ to start the ending, which is strong and clear, medium-bright and dry /ɛ/ with a fast, crisp final stop /t/.
The word can’t avoid seeming feminine; it has that ette ending. But such a range of flavours swirl around: a mechanical conveyance tram, with a rough hint of tramp and a suggestion of jam; a tighter, tidier trim; perhaps a girl’s name, Tammy; a net effect that could be an ensnaring mesh or a tennis game. It may bring to mind a stern and hectoring martinet, or a dangling, dancing marionette, and perhaps something to marinate in the interim. Look at its shape on the page and you may get a glimpse of a mitten to make it handle the cold better, perhaps a bit of mint (absent from the wine’s flavour), a questionable marine influence, possibly inert, and a backwards look at the commercial mart. But you will certainly see how balanced it is, with the i in the middle and humps and crosses on either side – to the left one cross and two humps, to the right one hump and two crosses. It even looks vaguely reminiscent of rows of grape vines in an orchard.
Will all this affect how the wine tastes to you? I don’t know. It would be a fun experiment to have a number of wine aficionados taste a new hybrid and tell some of them it had one name – say, merlina – and some another – say, xenoraz – and see if their tasting notes seem to be influenced by the name.
But whether or not it would, it’s best to be conscious of all aspects of what you’re tasting. When you taste the wine, taste the word too.