One of the first challenges of knowing any subject is learning to speak its language. Key terms allow aficionados to rapidly convey the gist of a wine in short-hand, and indeed to remember what it was like. While I find this specialist vernacular helpful in my role as wine buyer, sommelier, student, and avid drinker today, it is also the main reason why I didn’t get “into” wine until only five years ago.
My best friend at College spent his money on two things: clothes, and food. In fact, prior to matriculation, he’d already eaten at The Fat Duck. Soon enough, I was also well-versed in Michelin, and craving my next bite of tempura sweetbreads, or mackerel tartare dressed in coal oil. I did not, however, have a clue about wine. And when sommeliers talked of vineyards, soil, and minerality, I would glaze over – because I could not relate these factors to the contents of my glass. Meanwhile, at college feasts, the Master offered me claret, which, from what I could tell, was red wine. Claret, as I now know, is the British term for red Bordeaux.
There is no doubt that language, and the ceremony that accompanies it, can create a barrier excluding the uninitiated. Those trying to communicate about wine have often been in the trade for so long that they no longer remember what it’s like to be a beginner, using vocabulary that is exclusionary without even realising it.
Fundamentally, there are two components to this barrier: the first is understanding how wine is labelled and taxonomised. People confuse grape and region constantly, since wine is labelled by origin in the Old World (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, Mosel, etc), but with the emphasis on grape variety in the New World. One can then build on this with increasing awareness of what kind of wine comes from where. But it takes a combination of time, exploratory drinking, and reading to know that while Montepulciano is a red indigenous grape of Italy, it is also the name of a town in Tuscany, famed for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, made from the grape Sangiovese.
The second hurdle is effectively describing wines, which is the focus of this article. Wine is hard to put into words. Language is woefully inadequate to describe the flavours, sensations, thoughts, and emotions we experience when we drink. Neuroanatomically, this makes sense: the olfactory nerves connect directly to the rhinencephalon, the primary brain centre for our sense of smell, which is adjacent to, and connected with, the amygdala and hippocampus, brain structures involved in emotion and memory. It’s worth pointing out that the rhinencephalon is evolutionarily a much older part of the brain. Some olfactory nerves even relay directly with the hippocampus and amygdala. This connectivity offers some explanation as to why smells are so evocative, and wines even more so due to the complex arrays of aromas they offer. It also explains why smelling brings out primal emotions of disgust, joy, sadness, and more. Think of wine as the ultimate form of aromatherapy.
There are no direct connections, however, from the olfactory bulb to the brain areas responsible for forming speech, or understanding and articulating words (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas). Our brains are plastic, however, so with practice, new connections are made. The first time I was presented with a Gran Reserva Rioja and asked to describe what I could smell, I was at a loss. When my impromptu wine tutor asked whether I could smell toasted coconut, suddenly, with an exclamation of “what sorcery is this?!”, I could. Five years later, I can characterise the fruit and oak profiles of most wines with relative ease. Each week, I challenge those who attend my wine tastings to do the same. While it may feel poncy and pretentious, the process of tasting consciously enables us all to get so much more out of our wine drinking experience.
From the multiplied complexities of wine flavour and neuronal wiring arise abstract and synesthetic descriptions. While the obvious character of a Pfalz Gewürztraminer Spätlese comprises roses, lychee and Turkish delight, one of my regulars, Céline, said it was like “un petit Jésus en culotte de velours (a baby Jesus in velvet pants)”. To her, a Ukrainian Odessa Black was like “a Provençal tomato salad”, and a Macedonian Xinomavro like “August rain”. She also once asked me for a hug in a glass. I delivered a passito Cabernet-based Sicilian red, which was met with satisfaction. Of course, Céline’s characterisations of these wines were based on her memories, personal experiences and culture. She is French, in case you were wondering.
The aforementioned complexities are also the source of commonly-used, but abstract terms such as “linear”, “mineral”, or “green”. Wines are further personified as “austere”, “poised”, “elegant”, and “pretty”. Wait. Are we still describing a beverage? In isolation, I find these descriptors unhelpful since they are so generic, and I feel no closer to imagining what the wine is like without some idea of flavour and texture. They also pose a certain ambiguity: does “green” suggest under-ripeness (negative) or herbaceous complexity (positive). Is a “pretty” wine simple, sacrificing depth of flavour for mass appeal, or is it simply delicious? Using a lot of words without conveying much meaning certainly makes wine people seem like pompous twats, or worse, politicians.
As a student of both the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s and the Court of Master Sommeliers’ programmes, I see enormous value in their ultra-structured approaches, which analyse wines as objectively as possible in every perceptible dimension. In the real world, my wine notes are much sparser. I remark on the ripeness of fruit rather than precise fruit character, the texture of the tannins, the balance of primary fruit (or lack of it) with the savouriness of bottle age. I think of integration like the harmony of a choir so perfectly in sync it sounds like a single voice, but I also appreciate the syncopated rhythms of a wine evolving in the glass with waves of distinct character. The wines that I spend the longest with, the most fascinating, are the ones that João Afonso, Alentejo-based Prima-ballerina-turned-winemaker, describes thus: “It smells good. You don’t know why, or what exactly you smell, but it’s good.” These are wines of meditation.
My conclusion is that for those of us enamoured with wine, it is not merely a beverage, but a soulful, nuanced, evolving thing. While the language of wine shouldn’t be constrained to a flavour or aroma wheel, emotions and poetry alone won’t suffice either. Many words are written about romantic love, a subject almost as fascinating and perplexing as wine. Poetry may briefly woo us, but it is the robustness of actions that we rely on to know the nature of the beast.
Photo by Jopeel Quimpo on Unsplash