When it comes to great wine, maybe we just don't need descriptionsby Barry Smith / January 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Wine Glasses at The Vines of Mendoza resort in Argentina. ©longhorndave Why is it so difficult to describe the taste of a wine? You are in no doubt that you are experiencing the wine you are tasting. So why do its aromas and flavours elude your attempt to capture them in words? Partly, because a lot happens during tasting. The experience is fleeting, making it hard to concentrate on; though we are usually left with a firm impression of liking or disliking, a sense of surprise or disappointment; and it is these hedonic reactions to which people first give voice. But what comes before that step, and why should it be so hard to pin down the taste of a wine? Timing is an issue with tasting, and with practice it is possible to see it not as a single event but as a dynamic series of events, and attend to the initial attack as the wine enters the mouth, the persistent or short finish, and in between, the mid-palate. Wine-makers deploy a small but precise vocabulary when tasting, mostly designed to help them pick out faults. This is very far from the poetry that a wine lover seeks. Moreover, exclusive focus on particular qualities of acidity or tannin can interfere with one’s ability to appreciate a wine as a whole. To reacquaint ourselves with it we must relinquish attention to the parts and appreciate the flavour of the whole. But how should we describe its flavour? The difficulty of capturing what we experience may be due to perceiving a composite object. So describing a wine is like describing a face. We know what the people we see look like, just as we know what the wine in our glass tastes like, but we are poor at describing both. However, while we have the ability to recognise faces, nature didn’t endow us with a similar ability when it comes to wine. To acquire that skill requires effort and repeated exposure to different wines so that we learn to group according to grape characteristics. Such groupings lead to expectations about the typical characteristics a Sauvingnon Blanc or Cabernet Franc should have. Words for these characteristics—grassy, leafy, plummy—can be shared but they pick out just one dimension of the wine’s flavours. Fruity is the word most commonly reached for by beginners. But which fruit? You can achieve greater precision if you ask yourself whether you taste red fruits or black fruits in red wines, and whether it is tropical or orchard fruit you taste in whites. Turning to words for shape or feel, like round or sharp, can help to pin down tastes. When white wines lack obvious fruit characteristics, wine merchants often reach for the term minerality: recently much-disputed. Described in a new entry in the 4th edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine as an imprecise sensory term, there is no agreement about the basis of its use. Some people use it to describe a reductive, flinty odour of struck match due to starving the wine of oxygen in barrels. Others take it to be a slight taste of saline. While others regard it as a mouthfeel. Despite the variety of understandings, minerality is always agreed to be a good thing. Finally, there are the terms balance and complexity that pick out notable features in a wine recognisable to any drinker. Give anyone a balanced and an imbalanced wine, and they will prefer the former. A wine is balanced if it contains all the requisite parts—fruit, acid, alcohol, perhaps oak and tannin—with no one of these dominating the others. Perceived complexity goes beyond balance, by harmonising many potentially competing elements. The lack of confidence many feel when asked to describe a wine is often induced by encountering lists of adjectives piled up by wine critics. But when it comes to a great wine there is little we need to say. As fine wine professionals put it, the wine is complete.