Cat Piss, Horse Sweat, Wet Dog, Barnyard (Unusual Wine Descriptors)

Categories: Wine Time

horses ass.jpg
Photo by Jeremy Parzen
Can wine smell like horse's ass? Sometimes it does. But that's not a bad thing.
One of the pet peeves at our house is gooseberries.

No, not the berries themselves. But the people who use the descriptor gooseberry when writing a tasting note.

As one wine blogger put it, "New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc's classic description is smelling like cats' pee on a gooseberry bush. If you grew up both cat-less and gooseberry-less, you might be clueless as to what that smell might be like."

I can't say that I've ever plucked a gooseberry from a gooseberry bush and tasted it. Nor have I tasted elderberry flower, star anise or "burning embers," to borrow a descriptor that the "emperor of wine" Robert Parker Jr. once used to describe a 100-point wine.

Many wine writers and wine bloggers employ a healthy dose of braggadocio when composing their tasting notes, often using aromas and flavors that the rest of us humans do not commonly come into contact with (see this great post on the nature of tasting notes by BrooklynGuy, "Writing Tasting Notes Is Not Easy").

The other day when we posted on What Is Terroir and Why Is It Important in Wine, a reader asked about the relationship between (the descriptor) barnyard and (the notion of) terroir.

That got me thinking about some of the more curious and often counterintuitive tasting descriptors used in wine writing. Here are some of my favorites.

Barnyard, a term often used to describe the nose of red wine, particularly Burgundy. It's a euphemism for shit.

Cat piss, one of the classic notes in the nose of Sauvignon Blanc, often euphemized as tom cat (but if you've ever smelled a great expression of Sauvignon Blanc, you know that it smells like piss).

Wet cardboard, sometimes used to describe cork taint but also often used in tasting notes for Chablis. As one wine professional once said to me, "it's either corked or it's Chablis."

Wet dog, a term that once caused a major kerfuffle when employed by a famous Wine Spectator editor to describe a revered Barolo.

Horse sweat, a canonical descriptor I often reach for when tasting red wines from the Rhône.

Dirty socks, a term often used to describe reduction in wine (when a lack of oxygen makes the wine smell like farts when first opened).

What are some of your favorite unusual wine descriptors? Please share them in the comments section and I'll do a follow-up post next week...

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Actually, I use "bubblegum dust" as a descriptor for white Zinfandel and other sweetish Rosés. I think it is a legit descriptor as most Americans have some experience with unwrapping bubble gum and smelling that sugary dust. That's why I don't use "gooseberry"; it is not as common an aroma in the US as it is in New Zealand or the UK. As to Cat Pee, most Sauvignon Blancs don't have it and those that do are, at least to me, off -putting. Barnyard can be a descriptor for a very earthy wine with a fecal note but most often seems to inticate a wine with too much Brettanomyces.


@MacCocktail thanks for the mention! :)


I remember seeing a wine in England called Cat Piss. I never got a chance to try it and see if the name held up.


Great post Jeremy, I get a kick out of these descriptors as well. For instance I like a little barnyard in my pinot noir, but was alarmed to find that Robert Parker attributed this to dirty barrels or something unhygienic in the process.

"Bubble gum" is something I've heard Bear Dalton use.


 @Delouise Brett character can come from older cooperage and pH levels that are too high. I think most barnyards smell of earth and manure - so I think we are describing the same aromas. There is a lot of debate as to whether "barnyard" is always a flaw, just as there is debate as to whether discernible volatile acidity is a flaw.

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