Highs and lows of wine descriptions

I’ve been accused of many things, and now a tasting note has led to me being told that I’ve reached “a new low in wine journalism!”. Oh dear.

The note in question was posted as a recommended wine in my Mail & Guardian column a few weeks back. The wine was Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2011, and I described it thus: “Ripe but not sugary, concentrated but subtle and understated, lightly rich but nervy, it is a lovely, serene wine that will grow even better and more complex over quite a few years. It is pricey at R150, but worth every cent.”

To which a reader, Ian Joseph, responded in a comment online, and (with some different wording) to my email address. He asked exasperatedly: “Exactly how does ‘lightly rich’ wine taste? Not to speak of ‘nervy’, ‘serene’ and other totally meaningless adjectives. Exactly how many years is ‘quite a few’? I live in Northern California and love drinking good wine without the bullshit. You, sir, go too far.”

It was a Sunday morning and I had little else to do except prepare the next load of nonsense for my column, so I responded to his email. Incidentally, I think that this topic, of how awful wine descriptions often are, is always worth returning to (as with the debate over sighted and blind tastings, for example), which is why I’m reporting on this email conversation. It certainly made me think a bit.

 

Me to Ian, defensively:

… this description is a pretty vague one indeed, because I don’t believe in being very precise about something as individually perceived as wine. (I presume you’re as hostile to the standard American style of notes which consists of lists of tastes/odours.)

Ripeness is a question of sugar levels [in grapes], basically. Many ripe wines have residual sugar for various reasons, or the sweetness of ultra-ripeness; this one doesn’t. It seemed a useful point, to me. Very concentrated flavours (the dominant style of smart New World wines – especially those catering to American tastes) are usually associated with blockbusterish monolithicity. But this one has the concentration without that. “Lightly rich” is basically the same things said again. I could have said “richly light”, I suppose! It’s a fairly rich, full wine, but has a pleasingly light quality. “Nervy” is a fairly common wine descriptor, indicating a freshness, a lively acidity. Serene – well, I confess I do tend to use a lot of “psychological” categories, that not everyone appreciates – aggressive, sombre, etc. This wine seemed to me to be serene, and I thought that some other people would understand what I was trying to convey. Clearly not you.

As to the timespan – I suppose if I’d said 3, 5 or 7 years 4 months you’d have been happy? I couldn’t, because generally this is a matter of guesswork, and very dependent on storage conditions; but I wanted to indicate that it had a future. So “quite a few” is an attempt to indicate this.

I’m sorry that my attempt at characterising the wine failed so miserably for you. I must say that it is not at all uncommon for other people’s descriptions of a wine to fail with me too. I’m glad you enjoy drinking wine – you should just be grateful that, apparently, you don’t feel obliged to think about the process at all, or relate it to words, or try to tell anyone else about the joys of a particular wine. You can just dismiss it all as bullshit.

 

Ian to me:

I far prefer a wine to be described as acidic rather than nervy, acidic is far more precise. The same goes for some residual sugar giving rise to partial sweetness rather than lightly rich. You get the idea I am sure. Wine, in general is nothing more than a beverage made from fermented grape juice and, I believe, far too much pretense, snobbishness and confusing language has come to be associated with the product. Furthermore, it is not an enduring product, it changes with time and once consumed is gone forever. It is a beverage for a brief moment in time and to ascribe nonsensical language to it, in my opinion, insults both the beverage and the winemaker.

I live about 20 minutes from the Sonoma valley and regularly visit wineries and attend events in both Napa and Sonoma. I have not, up till now, encountered this type of a description when it comes to wine. Maybe it is the American style that is so different.

 

Me to Ian, a bit more aggressively:

I get the idea, but disagree. The wine is not “acidic” – any more than a nervous person is neurotic, perhaps. And I wish to avoid precision precisely for the reason you give – that wine changes with time.

I agree about the problem with language – and don’t even really defend this particular note – it is too flowery, I agree, somewhat excessive. Though not all that uncommon in its essence, really, in a more British tradition of winewriting, to which I (a South African) relate more. I seldom write like this, you’ll be pleased to know.

But I disagree that wine is a “nothing more than a beverage”. Is a poem “nothing more than words” and a painting “nothing more than paint”? Anything at all is reducible to its absurd constituents. If it’s essentially no different for you from Coke or orange juice, I don’t know why you bother. One of the reasons winewriters descend into absurdity on occasion is the difficulty of conveying an experience of the wine – which is one of the jobs of a wine writer. I have no idea of the sort of description that appeals to you, if any.

This is part of a description of a wine by the eminent American writer David Schildknecht (who does a lot of tasting for Parker): “…salt-spray, exotic, musky flowers, red currant, pomegranate, and mysteriously animal scents in the nose. A striking, shimmering, exchange of saline, alkaline, iodine and crustacean minerality with white peach, tart red fruits, citrus zest, and flowers on the palate, leads to a finish that positively sizzles with mineral, berry, and citrus intensity.” Perhaps you like that one – but I once singled it out as an example of absurdity.

I think this is a debate that should be frequently re-raised, so, while I of course don’t like being the victim, think you’re quite right to object!

 

Then came an email from Ian, giving me a few examples of tasting notes he appreciates, but I won’t quote it here – except for his closing point:

And on a lighter note as Russell Crowe said in A Good Year, one of my favorite lines is his off the cuff description of the wine made at La Siroque… “Bouquet of a wet dog, hits the palate like a razor blade, and a finish that hints of offal.”

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