Instead of listening to the bores who claim to be intimidated by wine-speak, we should celebrate the unique effect that wine has on us, and have fun expressing it. By Graham Holter
People find wine descriptions “confusing” and “unhelpful”. We’re told the words we use “don’t help them understand what the wine tastes like”.
This is, of course, familiar ground. The “pomposity” of the wine trade has been ridiculed for decades. We’re portrayed as elitist and insular, suspicious of outsiders, all too ready to sneer and snigger at those who don’t speak or understand our private language.
We should certainly take note if the products and services we sell are regarded as intimidating by potential customers. But does that automatically mean apologising for the words that we use? Have any of the opponents of “flowery, over-the-top” wine descriptions (many of them wine journalists) ever come up with a more useful or comprehensible lexicon?
Laithwaites is the latest to indulge in a spot of self-flagellation. It asked a group of 1,000 “reasonably well-informed” volunteers to point out the least helpful wine terms from a list. The most useless of all was deemed to be “firm skeleton” – a phrase we can safely assume that few, if any, of them had previously encountered.
Yet simple phrases like “wet stone”, “leathery” and “chunky” were also rejected by large numbers (but by no means the majority) of those questioned. We’re entitled to ask why these words were apparently beyond the grasp of “reasonably well-informed” people.
It’s significant that participants were instructed to identify the “least helpful” terms, as well as the most useful ones. So there was already a slightly negative tinge to the proceedings – an implication that some of the words were inherently redundant or laughable. It was a chance for anyone who felt self-conscious about their limited wine knowledge to put a resentful boot into the gatekeepers of a world they don’t fully understand.
THERE IS A DEBATE to be had about how useful tasting notes can be. I once attended a wine competition judged by some of London’s most celebrated sommeliers, and studied the notes they submitted. There was hardly any convergence of opinion. A wine that had appeared “crisp and mineral” to one taster was “opulent and tropical” to another.
That’s not a reason to abandon descriptive reviews. Films, music, restaurants, cars, plays and books also divide critical opinion. One reviewer’s post-modern masterpiece is another’s derivative shambles. Nobody minds.
But this is not quite the point. The best wines trigger reactions and emotions inside us that are not always easy to pin down, or verbalise. Some are obviously physical (we may feel the gentle burn of acid, or the mouth-coating properties of tannin); some require more effort from our sensory mechanism (this wine tastes of cherries; this one smells of horse); and some are emotional (this wine will be perfect in a summer picnic hamper; this one makes me want to sing Verdi).
AS WINE MERCHANTS, it seems perverse that we should be embarrassed or ashamed by any of these thoughts and feelings. If we can capture some of them on a shelf ticket or a website, however haphazardly, surely that’s a good thing. If the words come across as flamboyant, or a little crazy: who cares? We know that wine is fun. Let’s prove it to the outsiders we’re told are so intimidated.
Not everyone will get it, and there will be more surveys that tell us so. But then not everyone gets The Wire, or the books of Hilary Mantel, or the music of The Fall, or the plays of Samuel Beckett.
And there will always be a constituency of people who don’t particularly care for words, or interesting wine, or anything that looks like too much of a challenge. We probably need to write them off.
It sounds pompous, elitist and insular. But to vote for an alternative – if there is one – would be a grave disservice to a category which is endlessly varied, and gloriously weird.
This article appears in the July 2013 edition of The Wine Merchant