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Modern winespeak has become so overrun with wordy wine descriptions they have ‘arguably lost their practical function as consumer guides.’ Writes Bianca Bosker’ in her article 'Is there a better way to talk about wine' in The New Yorker.
Tim Atkins refers to the multiple euphemisms used to describe wines; 'farmyard, cheesy, goaty, vegetal, rustic or sweaty. The French use the term sous-bois, or undergrowth, which makes you wonder what they get up to at the weekends, and the Italians talk about truffles.'
Andrew Jefford writing in Decanter agrees, leading wine critics are ‘bludgeoning their rivals to death by adjectival force of arms’ and engaging in senseless ‘metaphorical overloads’.
The original wine snobs including the ancient Greeks and Romans, didn’t do it so why do we? Descriptions were to be found, but of an infinitely more practical note referring to the potential for headaches or drinkability.
The Journal of Wine Economics ran an analysis of wine critics which concluded that the industry was, in no uncertain terms, “intrinsically bull****-prone.”
Is there a better way to describe wine?
Frustrated academics, sommeliers, and critics are attempting to rein in tasting notes and think of better and more objective ways to describe wine.
Solutions offered are to think of flavour in terms of chemistry, (see the cheat sheet below) where a a flavour is linked back to the chemical compound responsible for the character.
Other possibilities include limiting ourselves to a set number of descriptive words or even reverting to scoring a wine instead of using words atall.
Both Bosker and Jefford dismiss a scoring system as wine is too subjective and complex to be defined by numbers.
Jefford touches on the light hearted nature of tasting notes which are written tongue in cheek with a smile and should be taken as such.
Grubstreet picked up on pranksters doing just that. They mocked up their own wine labels and placed them in a supermarkets. A label for JP Chenet read: "Bitter clowns tears with a hint of suspicion. Great with lobster thermidor. Best drunk in the street. Taste guide: Trouser Jazz.”
Bosker doesn’t provide an answer to her own question, but seems to acknowledge that objective wine descriptions are a dead end. And in the end it is the ‘poetic’ element of wine discourse that attracts attention. As Geoff Kruth the master sommelier tells Bosker,“At the end of the day, we’re selling poetry.”
Wine descriptions should show three skills writes Jefford, tastking skill, the ability to communicate enthusiasm and literary skill.
We can analyse and criticize wine descriptions but a New Zealand sauvignon blanc described as 'a bungee jump into a gooseberry bush' sounds like a good enough reason to crack open a bottle on a Tuesday night to me.
Perhaps all the poetry, metaphors and euphemisms do really work some magic. What do you think? Does a good wine description do it for you?
If you're interested in wine you might like to know about the 50 most expensive wines in the world.