What’s the word for the stretch of wet sand on a beach, revealed as the wave ebbs, just before the sun dries it? That piece of unmarked land, that drenched sheet, stretched like pastry by the rolling pin wave. We beach walkers try our best to own it. We make it ours briefly with barefoot prints, dog paws and the dragging pull of a child’s spade and bucket. Yet almost as soon as our mark is made, the wave, like an Etch a Sketch, erases. Is its sole purpose to remind us of our ultimate insignificance, or is it there to remind us to keep going, unencumbered by our past? Does it have a name? Not the swash, nor the breaker. The beach, yes, but that quicksand line, waterlogged but coming up for air, time and again, formed as an act of ablation by the sea on the land.
I will find the word. Someone kind will share it and then I will own it forever and use it, in triumphant silence, every time I walk the beach. Possessing it for the first time will be as I imagine a young hummingbird’s first garden foray. Hummingbirds see an array of colors invisible to humans; they own an unknown. Until that moment of ownership, and for want of a better word, I choose to call that liminal space on the beach, hope.
Words matter. We mind them. They work on us and into us. They become the ‘I’. There is a sense of terrible disconnect when we lose them, equal only to the wonder in learning a new one, at whatever age. My new word in the last few weeks is “perfusionist”. I found it beautiful on first hearing, imagining a combination of perfume, percussion, and illusion. A scented musical conjurer perhaps. It is nothing of the sort. A perfusionist is a skilled medic with little time for whimsy. The perfusionist in my life successfully brought a loved one through his liminal moment. The word therefore now has a place of honour, and horror, in my most treasured lexicon.
Wine, like medicine, has its own layers of language. The lay terms are used often to simplify, the technical to add depth to the strata. As students we learn its vocabulary, from sight to smell, from flavour to structure, from start to finish. We believe there to be mastery in precision. Often that is true, but I have equally found there is risk in reduction. It is hard not to let each new tasting become a lesson in learning lines, repeating, and recycling words used by millions before us. I have found the chipping away of intuitive reaction sometimes leaves us only with an inanimate sculpture.
I have respect for the terms approved by better tasters before me and recognise the reassurance that clarity and repetition can bring to the wine table. But the greatest thrill always is hearing a wine description I have not before associated with a particular taste, texture, or sensation. These I savour, especially the ones that seek to reward the wine in the glass, not punish it. Alex Hunt MW gifted me the concept of wine architecture in a virtual tasting this year. Matthew Stubbs MW’s seamless tasting notes are revelations every time I come back to them. Andrew Jefford’s depiction of Chablis not only reveals its fossilised austerity, but renders the region forever, starkly beautiful in the process. Hugh Johnson’s writing never fails to awaken wanderlust. Wine language does not have to be perfect to be beautiful, it just needs to be carefully chosen. It does not have to be personal to be authentic, it just needs to include the reader.
I remember the first time a winemaker used the word “croquant” to describe a wine in his cellar. It was in Beaujolais, he had turned the tank tap on to pour us a particularly perky, purple Gamay. The first sip was exactly like biting into a cherry on its stalk. A notch unripe, crisp and crunchy therefore, but also juicy. I swallowed the word but spat out the wine. I have appropriated it, magpie-like, and use it like a shiny pebble in my personal tasting notes. “Lisse” is another pebble of mine. It is more nuanced than smooth, conjuring sleekness and gloss, lending both light and lustre to texture. The privilege of wine buying across language barriers is learning a raft of different words, from different tongues, to describe wine. Rather than creating an Esperanto of wine language, perhaps we should embrace a more varied, assertive, eclectic, international dictionary.For want of a better word, I choose to call this extended vocabulary “vintionary”.
A reference to chapparal may make little sense to someone who has yet to stand in the dust of California, lit by golden hour, the warm air tinctured by the ghost of smoke and stewed leaves. But why deny the right to a new descriptor? Better to embed it deep so that when the moment comes, ownership of the unknown is attained. Make it a gift. It may make a lasting impression, or it may be washed away by the next sip. Let the reader choose.
I enjoy the odd game of vintionary. It never helped to pass exams but now they are done, I appreciate the newfound freedom. I am a hummingbird. The colour of my inky Petite Sirah takes me to a favorite evening dress and a dance floor. The hint of scent from my glass of Mediterranean rosé recalls dried lavender seeds, a love letter, in the pocket of my favorite suede jacket. Burnished amber Madeira takes me to Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos at sunrise and Turner’s sunsets. Color me beautiful is personal but so much more fulfilling to go beyond white, red and rose, beyond Rothko, to join Matisse or Jean Charles Boisset in his red room. It takes me to ivory cut through with mercury in a Blanc de Blancs, to pansy violet and Venetian glass red.
Rosés deserve an art gallery of their own. Beyond colour, there are grape tannin textures as myriad and fractured as the soils that nourish them. There are wines with palate shapes as varied and sinewed as dancers’ bodies. There are aromas as nuanced and unsubstantiated as a meadow in a summer breeze or a tisane from a Tibetan herb garden. There are flavors as dynamic as a Michelin starred kitchen in full, steaming tilt. Vintionary is ludic not ludicrous. We should play more with wines and with the language of wine. It allows us to stretch the moment between the intake of breath and the exhale. Anyone with a beating heart knows how important that is.
So, time for one last round of this game. What is the word for the vibration in a wine when it hits our palate? Its tension, its essential vinosity. The acidity, yes, but more precisely that fleeting sensation of a presence. Does it have a name? It exists just before our active, desperate mind decides to name all the fruits, flora, and fabrics we know, to use familiar words so as not to acknowledge our wine dementia. Perhaps this frisson’s sole purpose is to remind us of our ultimate state of tongue-tie, or perhaps it is there to remind us to keep looking for words, unencumbered by our past. For want of a better word, I choose to call this energy pleasure.