Wine writers knowingly run the risk of an appearance in Private Eye‘s Pseuds’ Corner every time they describe a wine. The vocabulary of taste, surely the most intimate of our senses, used to be confined to an inner circle of wine connoisseurs. But now wine writers find their floweriest quotes on supermarket shelf-stickers. There’s always a temptation to go over the top. As anyone who watched British television in the 1990s knows, Jilly Goolden found things in glasses of wine that would keep the Royal College of Psychiatrists in scientific papers for months. Gym shoes? Uglu fruit?
How should the ordinary wine drinker react to such apparent eccentricity – with reverence, incomprehension or a good guffaw? It all depends on whether or not you agree with the person who’s writing. Tasting anything – be it wine, cheese or orange squash – is a highly subjective business. With wine, there is no right answer. Your blackcurrants could be my blackberries; your musk my mushrooms. Over the centuries wine scribes have come up with all sorts of words to describe their favourite beverage. Some are useful, some less so. What is certain is that wine waffle has been around for a very long time. As the great 19th century wine writer’ TG Shaw, put it: ‘I was convinced 40 years ago – and the conviction remains to this day – that in wine-tasting and wine-talk there is an enormous amount of humbug.’ Doubtless they were saying the same thing in ancient Athens.
Yet wine tasting has become more scientifically precise in the last 50 years, reduced in some circles to a list of chemicals, equations and statistics: total acidity, residual sugar, pH, Brix levels (sugar density) and what have you. Surely there is a middle way between these two extremes of the functional and downright pretentious?
Describing tastes and smells is extremely difficult – like trying to perform a violin sonata in the middle of a Formula 1 race track – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. ‘Don’t all wines taste of grapes?’ is the refrain of a philistine, or someone who has no interest in what he or she drinks. Different grapes, winemakers and vineyards produce wines with distinct personalities that can take on characteristics of other fruits and of less edible substances such as burnt toast – and indeed cat’s pee. That’s why wine is such a fascinating – and enjoyable – drink.
But where do we start? If we stick to things that we’re all more or less familiar with – plums, gooseberries, pineapples, pepper, rose petals and so on – there’s a chance that our tasting notes might mean something to someone else. We should be precise, but not too precise, in my view. Cherries are fine, but morello, whiteheart of cocktail cherries are probably pushing it a little. We should also avoid Pseuds’ Corner certs – ‘warm horse’, ‘fine stripped fronds’ , ‘perfect with roast wolf’ and so on.
So that sets out the aims and objectives of this series on Winespeak. In each section, I’ll examine a well used, but perhaps not always understood, tasting term, and seek to explain it. Which wines smell of blackcurrants? What about cedarwood, buttered toast and wet wool? I can’t promise to look at warm polyester or gym shoes, but I might. Here goes.