…do they mean anything?
In the August/September 2012 edition of The Whistler I gave suggestions about how to describe a wine. Since then I’ve been looking at the issue from the other direction: reading wine writers’ comments to see how many words they use that really mean something to the general reader.
Descriptions in restaurant wine lists and on wine bottle labels are pretty disappointing. ‘Charming’, ‘quaffable’, ‘classy’ etc don’t mean anything except ‘there is nothing good I can find to say about this wine’.
But professional wine writers are more serious. They don’t use my rather minimalist approach; it would be too boring. Instead they have a range of words that mean the same thing. High acidity, for instance, can be ‘fresh’, ‘tart’, ‘crisp’, ‘bright’, ‘nervy’, ‘lively’ or ‘angular’. High viscosity can be ‘rich’, ‘creamy’, ‘buttery’, ‘silky’, ‘velvety’, ‘opulent’, ‘supple’ or just ‘smooth’. High in tannins can be ‘chewy’, ‘grippy’, or ‘structured’. With all these words to choose from they can fill a page of a magazine with poetic descriptions without just repeating the same few words.
So far so good; when they talk about ‘mouthfeel’ they are talking sense, once you know the code. It’s when they talk about flavours that they can easily lose us. One writer’s ‘cigar box and pencil shavings’ can be another’s ‘old leather and tea chest’. And most of us can’t smell any of those things in the same wine. Why is this?
I think there are two reasons: one is the genetic variation in the ability to smell. Several of my friends can’t smell asparagus in their pee the morning after eating asparagus. To me it’s overwhelming. But I can’t smell ketones when they can. A lot of us have the smell equivalent of colour-blindness.
The second is the non-specific nature of our sense of smell. Concentrate, for a moment, on a bit of science that explains a lot. There are at least 400 different chemicals that contribute to the smell of wine. For instance, the grassy flavour of sauvignon blanc is due to a group of chemicals called methoxypyrazines. But we don’t have a methoxypyrazine receptor in the nose. A number of receptors will pick up that chemical. Each of those receptors will also pick up a number of other chemicals. So the smell of sauvignon blanc is represented by a pattern of impulses to the brain that we learn, over time, to recognise. If we are talking about the smell of new mown grass it’s easy to associate the smell, that complex pattern of impulses reaching the brain, with the thing that causes the smell, because we can see it and point it out to other people. With wine we can’t see it, and can’t easily point it out to others, so we develop our own names. Wine writers spend so much time tasting wine together they sometimes come to use the same names reliably. But the average drinker should not expect to taste ‘peach and apple pie or yellow plums with notes of lily’, except by suggestion. Content yourself with knowing that an expert’s ‘unripe cherry with hints of cassis ‘is your ‘fruity’ or, if you’ve been at it a while, ‘dark fruit’, or, if you are really serious, ‘that dark fruit flavour typical of the red wines of the northern slopes of Faugères’.
So, the answer to the question I posed at the beginning is yes, but only when you decode the poetry into something meaningful to you.