Wine Term: Forest Floor
Variations: Underbrush, Sous Bois
Alternate Usages: n/a
What it really means: Wet Earth/Dirt Fragrance
Anyone who has spent time in the great outdoors, especially in a forest, knows that unique fragrance of the morning dew on the top soil of the forest floor. As you walk and turn up the fresh earth beneath your feet, there is a specific smell to the air. That sense of place and time is used as a scent descriptor for wines. Somewhat wet, somewhat decomposing, and somewhat nostalgic. It is a scent that cannot be replicated anywhere else, other than where it exists, yet of course, barring wines. A lot of the scent descriptions on wines really harken a place and time – the French have mastered this, hence the idea of terroir. All the poetry aside, it smells like dirt, very specific dirt mind you, but dirt nonetheless.
How to effectively use it:
Much like the smell of the first rain of the season on asphalt, the forest floor has a specific smell. Yes, different trees and plant life can sway that fragrance one direction or another, but there is a certain base fragrance that is universal from forest floor to forest floor. At no point is anyone expecting you to have licked the forest floor. It is a scent descriptor, not a flavor component. If the winemaker’s notes say that they get forest floor on the palate, they are speaking to the way that smell tastes in your mouth. So yeah, don’t go licking dirt, it isn’t really sanitary.
It is worthy of note that Pinot Noir seems to be the wine that carries this fragrance more specifically than any other varietal, and hence it is used regularly to describe Pinot whereas Cabernet does not give off a fragrance of forest floor. If a Cab did, you might think something was wrong with it, or it was blended with Pinot for some really, really odd reason.
Bad idea: “Smells like dirt.”
Better approach: “I get forest floor on the nose.”
Best approach (FLUFF IT UP!): “This Pinot is redolent with upturned forest floor, morning dew and mushrooms, an excellently executed sous bois characteristic.”
It’s pretty safe to say, never use this term with anything other than Pinot Noir, as stated above, but if you can identify it and notice it on another wine, don’t hesitate to point it out. Much like tarmac or asphalt, forest floor is not a flaw in wine, like burning rubber might be. If you’re not a fan of it, that’s fine, it is actually good to be able to identify in case you need to tell your local wine shop guru that you’re looking for a Pinot with a medium body, but don’t like the forest floor component. They will be able to swing you in the right direction to find your new favorite Pinot Noir.