Samui Wining & Dining
Objectively Subjective

When it comes down to it, describing the taste of wine is an almost impossible task.


23Most good and great wine is hardly tasted. It’s guzzled over tongues and down the throats of people who are not attuned to how wondrous it is. And, heartbreakingly so for the winemakers, they are, almost criminally, not receptive to the harmonious complexity a finely crafted wine has to offer.

These unfortunates are either pre-occupied, in deep conversation, too busy flirting, drunk, have just consumed a sickly citrus cocktail which numbs their taste-buds, have just taken a mouthful of vinegary salad, or, somewhat forgivably, they simply have a bad cold. Another irritatingly hard pill to swallow, for a true wine enthusiast without long pockets, is that it’s very common for gorgeously fine wine to be lavished on undeserving guests or clients that someone wishes to impress at an important dinner. And, more often than not, the mortals being entertained don’t know the difference between a liquid refreshment and superb wine. Nothing the poor winemaker can do dispenses with the need for a sensitive and interested drinker.

If the complete sense of taste were located in the mouth (where logic tells us it should be), anyone swallowing a mouthful of wine would get all the sensations it has to offer. However, the nerves that receive anything more distinctive than the basic taste sensations of sweet, sour, salt and bitter are higher in the head and deep inside the brain. In fact, we smell tastes, rather than tasting them with our tongues. The true organ of discrimination is the upper nasal passage, where, in normal breathing, air never goes. And the vapours of volatile substances are the only sensations that can reach it. To reach the brain’s receptors, wine has to be inhaled (through the nose or mouth) into this highly sensitive upper part of the nasal cavity, where it dissolves into moisture. The nerves in the brain’s ‘olfactory bulb’ detect the aromatic moisture immediately. It’s often remarked how smells stir memories far more rapidly and vividly than other senses. The olfactory bulb is the nearest neighbour to the temporal lobe, where memories are stored. And it seems that smell, the most primitive of all our senses, has a privileged position of instant access to the memory-bank.

Experienced wine tasters often rely on the immediate reaction of their memory to the first sniff of a wine’s aroma. If they cannot relate to a wine straight away, experts fall back on their powers of analysis, located in the frontal lobe, where their judgment of a wine initially formed, ready to be stored for future reference in the temporal lobe. The range of reference is the big difference between an experienced wine taster and a beginner. There is little meaning in an isolated sensation, although it may be very pleasant.

Where the real pleasures of wine tasting lie are in the cross-references, the stirring of memories, and the comparisons between similar and yet subtly different wines from the same or nearby region. Of course, wines differ from one to another in terms of colour, texture, strength, structure, body and length. And a taster takes all of this into account, but only a wine’s aroma can evoke curiously emotional responses. That’s the way it is with our sense of smell; we really have very little control over our mind’s instant response to it. But it’s certainly worth bearing in mind when trying to reason why we seem to vehemently prefer one wine to another, and as to why we sometimes don’t necessarily agree with fellow wine taster’s equally valid and usually reliable opinions.

And this helps to explain why wine is not only hard to fully understand, but also damn near impossible to talk about with any clarity (as you may be observing right now!). Whilst I may be describing a white wine as having a certain appetizing lemon/lime/mint character, someone else would say that it reminds them of Lemon Pledge furniture polish, and yet another would say smooth lemon basil whilst someone else would argue for dried tarragon or rich aniseed. And we’d all be right! For in describing wine, we try to translate a sensory experience into a verbal, and there are no words that do this with total precision. The best we can do is approximate with words that are similar and, we hope, within the framework of experience of our audience. This is why a whole vocabulary of wine terms has evolved to describe a wine’s characteristics. When heard for the first time, the language seems to have a poetic quality about it, but in reality it helps wine lovers, judges and growers to communicate with each other. Words such as jammy, flabby, astringent and dynamic are as elementary to a wine enthusiast as sweet, sour and salty are to a chef.

There is also a very seriously constructed schematic ‘taste wheel’ which attempts (most unsatisfactorily in my humble opinion) to classify the spectrum of wine tastes, almost like the chemical periodic table. The reason why it fails so miserably is precisely because of the problem we’ve just discussed that is insufficient language for describing something as subjective as taste. And often the more successful words we use to describe wine are borrowed from other senses.

However, some food phraseology is helpful. Fruit terms, in particular, work: blackcurrants, raspberries, apples and peaches all sum up instant recognition of flavour and aromatic qualities. And evocative terms like earthy, musty, oaky, smoky, spicy and flowery all stir the brain’s olfactory bulb and jolt the temporal lobe into action. Of course, there are plenty of less accurate, and downright bizarre, descriptive expressions that wine geeks with over active imaginations love to use. And although far from scientific, the following are nevertheless great fun to use at wine tastings, especially if attended by boorishly earnest people: jumpy, heady, sappy, nervy, brawny and racy. But probably my favourite outlandish wine term to use, when asked for an opinion of an uninspiring Cabernet blend, and purely because it’s so ridiculously pompous and craftily ambiguous, is: unresolved!


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