The jargon of wine description is interesting because it is fundamentally so difficult to describe taste. I feel that we are much better equipped to discuss what we see and what we hear. Music terms are fairly standard, with words like allegro and largo being defined by metronome speeds. Winemakers have a vocabulary littered with terms like carbonic maceration, ph levels, maderisation, but this is not a lexicon that the rest of us can begin to share.
In taste there are some basics on which we all agree – sweet, sour, acidic, fruity, dry, soft, oaky, tannic, crisp. We know about the aroma or bouquet, the body of the wine, the finish. Whether it is long on the palate or not.
Beyond that it is anyone’s guess. Mostly these words are employed by wine critics who, like all writers, need to engage their audience and grab their attention. Thus we have the modern trend for ‘a hint of something’ where that something can be berries, earth, coffee, orange peel, nuttiness, the barn, toasty oak, lush fruit. What these things mean to others is hard to say. Berries, for instance, could be strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries or gooseberries, all of which have very different flavours.
All this was pointed out by Valmai Hankel at a conference on Australian English in Adelaide in 1999. She explored the way in which wine writers move into poetry in the attempt to catch the subtleties of the matured wines by some suggestive analogy.
Hankel quotes Sebastian and Charles in Brideshead Revisited:
‘ … It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.’
‘Like a leprechaun.’
‘Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.’
‘Like a flute by still water’.
‘ … And this is a wise old wine.’
‘A prophet in a cave’.
‘ … And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck’.
‘Like a swan’.
‘Like the last unicorn’.
My favourite in this line was her last example, from Robert Joseph, an English writer, who said a wine was ‘like baby Jesus in velvet pantaloons sliding down your throat’.
Probably over the top, but ear-catching.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Onderwijsgek)
Do you know a good wine description? Tell us about it in our new comments feature below.