A rose by any other name

When I was the manager of a wine store, I hosted a weekly tasting based on a theme. At the end, I would gather up the tasting sheets to see what people really said in their notes.

Some showed good enthusiasm early on but faded to silence by the end. Others remained disinterestedly blank. Some contained gnomic rating systems - pigs, in one case. Some of the greatest and most unpublishable tasting notes I have ever read were contained on those discarded pages. Sometimes I just looked at them, in all their outrageous, swallowed-not-spat, spontaneity and thought about what we lose when we learn how to talk about wine.

The current trend in wine description is for a kind of objective deconstruction of flavour. This has been promulgated successfully by the WSET and many important wine writers, including Robert Parker. In this model, we are encouraged to enumerate fruits and vegetables, barrels and condiments, and some miscellaneous objects such as pencils and marmalade. In other words, real, physical nouns, not poetic concepts. Words such as rustic, pretty, rasping and well-bred are much too vague for the new rubric of wine. These old tasting notes were well and truly skewered by James Thurber’s naive domestic Burgundy” cartoon, but if he was around to update it for today, his host may well have been listing blackcurrants, cassis, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, mulberries and, perhaps, a delicate hint of red plum. Or, to put it another way, fruity.

The problem is that fruity sounds so unaccomplished. Anyone can say a wine is fruity. It takes a real professional, we maintain, to pinpoint the fruit. I can’t help but feel this practice, while accomplished, is not terribly interesting. I suspect most customers find such notes a bit academic and - ironically - rather vague.

Take the following scenario for example (names have been changed to protect the identity of my customer). Jeremy is asking me about some Bordeaux. I am recommending a Médoc and a St Emilion. He asks me what the difference is. The empirical answer is that the Cabernet-based wine is more blackcurranty, with high acids and tannins, whereas the St Emilion, being Merlot-based, is more about red fruits, with more moderate acids and tannins, although they are both cedary because of their wood ageing. He looks at me blankly, unable to assimilate this textbook division in terms of pleasure. 

I try again. The Médoc is more black-fruited, firmer, more angular, I say. The St Emilion is softer and smoother. I have departed from my catechism, but we’re getting somewhere. Sensing comprehension, I reach further. The Médoc is a Savile Row suit: tailored, formal and beautifully made. Not something to relax in, but something to admire and unparalleled in the right context. The St Emilion, by contrast, is more of a cashmere jumper over a double-cuffed shirt. Comfortable but not slovenly, it’s a little more relaxed and versatile, but just as luxurious in its own way. It may own monogrammed velvet slippers. 

We’re verging on the ridiculous, yet we’re also having fun, and the lack of seriousness is what gets the message across. It’s not entirely our fault that we can be prone to priggishnss in wine. It is not in the nature of any teacher on any subject to encourage whimsy. But this modern fruit-bowl method of description, while superficially accurate, can be alienating for those who haven’t gone through the system. Even we know that Grenache doesn’t taste like plums and Barolo doesn’t smell anything like a rose. It’s up to us to remember that this literal, classroom-based method, while initially useful, isn’t a dictionary of wine flavour but a starting point for speaking sensually.

Jason Millar is retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at  jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar

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