DESCRIBING WINE: WHEN WORDS FAIL
Anyone who has read a wine magazine, a wine column, a wine blog, watched Somm, or read those little signs wine stores put next to wine they’re hawking (shelf-talkers), will run across wine descriptions that are completely useless.
If you look long enough, it's not hard to find three or four “wine experts” describing the same wine in three or four completely different ways.
The futility of trying to put into words something you sense, like sight, sound, touch, smell and taste, is particularly hard with the last two. For example, describe the smell and taste of an orange. Not in your head, but in words. Write it down. Imagine someone who never tasted an orange reading what you wrote. You can write about the sweet smell, the bright flavor, even the juice running down your arm, but will the reader be any more clued in to what an orange actually tastes like?
In wine we rely on taste and smell memory to attempt to evoke past associations. That’s why a wine reviewer will write that a wine smells of mown grass, it’s because a memory of mown grass popped into his head when he sniffed it.
This becomes problematic because nobody’s experiences are exactly the same, and there may be scents that trigger other memories for another person. Mown grass for one becomes a jalapeño for another. When a wine writer describes a wine by stringing a lot of these connections together, you get something incomprehensible, like one I read not too long ago:
“…exploding from the glass with lime cordial, apricot and mandarin peel scents of citrus, followed by suggestions of jasmine, honey toast and marzipan with a touch of coriander seed. The full-bodied palate is jam-packed with expressive citrus and stone fruit layers.”
The purpose of writing is communication. Here the author is attempting to put into words smells, tastes and feel of a wine, but does anybody think when they drop $170 for this wine they, too, will smell lime cordial, apricot and mandarin peel, jasmine, honey toast and marzipan with a touch of coriander seed? Or taste citrus and stone fruit layers?
When I was in my early 20s, just beginning my wine journey, an old Sonoma winery had discovered an old cask in a corner of the cellar buried behind casks used to hold current wines. It was explained that the cask held a rare, old, sweet fortified wine called Angelica, which was made for church sacraments. They went on to say that the winery’s family would draw off this wine to serve on special occasions. It was so delicious they decided to bottle up the rest, just 363 cases, and offer it for sale. It was called “Angelica Antigua” because they had no idea how old the wine was, or how long it had been stashed in the corner. They just told everyone it was old.
I forgot the intriguing description of the wine, except for this one thing, “flavors of peach melba.”
I like peach melba, I thought. It was a classic dessert served at a restaurant I worked in during the early 1970s. I figured if a dessert wine tasted like peach melba, I’d like it.
The asking price was $30 per bottle, which doesn’t sound pricey now, but when it was released it was very high, especially when considering the average Napa Valley Cabernet sold for $6 that year.
At the time, my friend Jim Witt managed a liquor store and decided to order the wine. It was $20 wholesale, and he asked if I’d split the cost to share a bottle, which I eagerly did. $10 to drink an old wine that tastes like peach melba? That sounded wonderful.
The day came to open the bottle. Jim poured the wine into my glass and I took a sniff. It didn’t smell like peach melba, in fact it smelled like wine. I put the glass to my lips and took a sip. It tasted like wine, also--sweet, strong wine--but it didn’t taste like peach melba.
I was disappointed, and a bit bewildered. It was my first encounter with wine-speak, and it was misleading to say the least. The wine wasn’t what I had expected; it was worse than I expected. I couldn’t enjoy it on its own merits because the descriptors had me expecting something else. It would have been better if they just told the story about the old family wine and left it at that.
The Sanford winery scene in Sideways illustrates how hard it is to communicate a meaningful description of wine. In the movie, Miles breathes in a rosé and rattles off a list of descriptions: “A little citrus, maybe some strawberry, passion fruit, and, ah there’s just like this faintest soupçon of like, uh, asparagus and there’s a just a flutter of, like a, like a nutty edam cheese.”
His less experienced friend Jack says, “Wow. Strawberries, yeah, strawberries. Not the cheese.”
There are wine terms that have been in general use among wine professionals, many of which, again, try to evoke taste memories, but what good is it if few people reading the review have ever encountered all of them? Cassis, lychee, saddle leather, gooseberry, mulberry, grassy Bosc pear, forest floor, Asian spices, pencil lead…the list goes on and on. And I’d like to say wine pros know each of those tastes and smells, but do they?
The power of suggestion may bring people along if they’re tasting with you, but after reading these words, the communication problems become more obvious. Each of those descriptions are offered because the writer’s taste memory evoked them. Very little of that works exactly for anyone else, and as I pointed out earlier, they can be terribly misleading.
So how should we tell you about each of our wines? Sight (color, shade and clarity), and feel—sharp, silky, gripping, plush, thick, thin—are easier senses to communicate than taste and smell. Maybe the answer lies with the impression a wine makes on the writer rather than trying to break down taste and smell into components. “The perfume makes me swoon,” “the flavor is textbook Northern Rhone Syrah.” “This is the finest Chardonnay I’ve sampled all year” “...it recalled eating raw oysters in Cancale and washing them down with a crisp, cold wine just like this.”
Most meaningful, at least for me, are the stories of the makers and where they come from. Just today, I was looking at a picture of the Erdener Treppchen vineyard in Germany’s middle Mosel, and once again was reminded how difficult the terrain is to prune and harvest. Everyone who sips that wine should know something about how hard it is to get those grapes to your glass. Only the most dedicated winemakers like Monchhof's Robert Eymael put in the work necessary to make great wine. And, by the way, his smile is infectious and genuine, too.
Wouldn’t you rather know that about the wine you’re about to purchase?