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Do You Know The Lingo?

Do You Know The Lingo?Wine is an absorbing subject to write about, because it’s both easy and difficult at the same time. The often-bizarre descriptive language used in columns and books, is known as ‘winespeak.’ It is a lingo, or jargon, common among professionals, and people involved in the wine business. And like so many other trades and businesses, wine certainly has its own lingo.

I can admit to being guilty of over using winespeak myself, partly because it’s a way wine enthusiasts spot each other. But these days, I have come to realise that regular consumers of wine often read wine columnists and scour wine reviews looking for simple guidance. And they may well wonder which guides to trust. After all, what do the adjectives and nouns really mean? These are important questions for a wine buff. The conscientious writer tries to convey the experience you will have if you drink the wine. And this requires some objective details on flavour (the tricky bit). But what most people undoubtedly really want to know is, will they like it?

Flavour, especially when it comes to wine, is made up of two components, its aroma and its taste. The sceptic about the importance of wine aroma should try drinking a glass while holding his or her nose. Certainly, part of the pleasure of drinking wine is catching the differences between what a wine smells like and how it tastes. For many, the nose is almost more interesting, because layers of smell are sometimes more complex, and easier to discern than layers of taste. I met a professional wine taster who told me that when push came to shove on finally deciding which bottle to award the points to, he uses only his nose to judge a wine's true characteristics. Indeed, the aroma has produced some arresting characterizations of individual types of wine. Well-known, but usually prissy, wine writer, Jancis Robinson surprised everyone with one such statement, “Wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, whether a Sancerre from the Loire or the popular wines from New Zealand, have the aroma of cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.” The scent of gooseberries, yes, hints of nettles, elderflowers, and grass, absolutely. But cat’s pee? That is more difficult. What if you do not own a cat? Would you recognize this particular scent? And even more to the point, would this description necessarily encourage you to buy it?

Another columnist’s recent description of a certain New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s aroma was that “it reminded him of a rugby club changing room!” (We can only hope that this was more dismissive than descriptive.) And a notable writer on Burgundy wrote, “Great Burgundy smells like shit.” Again, let us think about it. The classic fruit scent for wine made from the Pinot Noir grape in Burgundy is raspberries, and for some of us, the faint scent of rubber is a possible clue. But, his crude and attention-seeking description? Does he mean the faint compost-like aroma that can accompany fine wines? Or does he actually mean that arising from the less salubrious section of a farmyard? Either way, it is difficult to see the comment pinned on the shelf of your wine shop. Unless perhaps, it's in Australia, where the often-quoted no-nonsense description of mature Shiraz as having a “sweaty saddle character,” does not seem to cause any panic.

Some wine columnists love to pile on the more agreeable nouns. I remember reading about a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon having “gobs of fruit, blackcurrants and dark berries, with notes of leather and a hint of liquorice, chocolate and coffee.” In my opinion, there can be two possible responses to that. You could pour a glass of the wine, sniff it, swirl it and sniff it again, and try, with increasing desperation, to find each of these scents. Or, the more pragmatic wine buff can justifiably argue that few people can really discern more than a small handful of scents and tastes, so just pour yourself a glass, drink it, and decide whether or not you like it.

However, I have noticed that what appears to lure consumers into wine shops, are the adjectives describing fruit. Whether it is tropical fruit and melons, for Australian Chardonnay, or blackcurrants for claret from the Médoc, and especially from Cabernet Sauvignons from the New World. How commonly is ‘dark cherries’ used as an adjective for an Italian Valpolicella? And ‘vanilla tones’ used as a lazy description for heavily oaked wines? Unfortunately, with the cheaper wines, what often happens is that the scents on the nose seldom translate directly into tastes on the palate. Of course, some do, particularly the aggressively fruity New World wines. And perhaps we should be thankful that ‘pencil shavings,’ ‘petrol tones’ and ‘compost heap’ seldom do translate into taste. For me, it is exactly these types of experiences that demonstrate why sniffing a wine before sipping is so interesting. I know it looks a little pretentious and nerdy, but the selfish pleasure is doubled.

Having made you read all this winespeak about aromas and flavours, the truth is that I can only take you only so far. There is simply no substitute for physical tasting. After that, it is up to you to decide what your personal wine preferences are. But it’s well worth remembering that we never stop learning about wine, so long as we keep an open mind. And learning the lingo will definitely help to find what you are looking for on a good restaurant’s wine list, or on the shelves of a reputable wine shop.


Peter James


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