Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam

Why wine writers talk that way.

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine,” Fran Lebowitz once said. And what might she say about people who talk about how to talk about wine? I’m guessing she’d call them midgets. Which would be OK: Most oenophiles have been called worse, and usually in response to a word or expression that they’ve used to describe a wine.  Sweaty saddles, beef’s blood, pencil shavings, cat’s piss, wet dog, caramel-coated autumn leaves—professional and amateur tasting notes are filled with such expressions and are, as a result, a source of endless ridicule among casual wine drinkers and the uninitiated. As Jon Cohen put it in Slate seven years ago, “Why do these people write this way? Is this what happens when your job requires you to drink before noon?” Actually, we’d still write this way even if we held off until lunchtime; we use this language because it’s the best we’ve got.

How to put wine into words is a subject over which wine writers have long anguished. True, wine tasting is not the only gustatory experience that is difficult to convey linguistically; it is certainly not easy to describe how a steak tastes, or to capture the flavor of an oyster in a few pithy comments. But for restaurant critics, at least, the descriptive imperatives are generally less onerous: They are not obliged to go on at great length about how individual dishes taste, and they can pad their reviews with lots of scene-setting details. Not so wine critics: They are expected to talk only about what’s in the bottle and to construct what amounts to a three-dimensional view of a cabernet or chardonnay—and words rarely seem adequate to the task.

In his book The Taste of Wine, legendary French oenologist Emile Peynaud elegantly explained the conundrum. “We tasters feel to some extent betrayed by language,” he wrote. “It is impossible to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image.” This linguistic failure is surely one reason that numerical scores for wines have proven so popular; points are simplistic and distorting, too, but they at least give you something to hold onto—more so than, say, “spice box,” “melted asphalt,” or “liquefied minerals.”

So, how did such phrases become standard-issue wine nomenclature? We can trace it back to a revolution in winespeak that took place three decades ago. In 1976, two University of California, Davis professors, Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler, published a book titled Wines—Their Sensory Evaluation. A dense, bone-dry monograph stuffed with mathematical equations, the book touched on many subjects, but it was the chapter devoted to the vocabulary of wine that ultimately wielded the most influence. At the time, wines were generally evaluated anthropomorphically and tended to be described as masculine or feminine, coarse or refined, noble or common, ingratiating or overbearing.

Amerine and Roessler proposed that oenophiles abandon this vague terminology, rooted in the British class system, in favor of a more rigorous lexicon that treated wines not as living creatures with personalities but as agricultural products with precise flavors and aromas. Other researchers, notably fellow UC Davis professor Ann Noble (creator of the famous Wine Aroma Wheel),  refined this new diction. Raiding the garden and the kitchen pantry, they prescribed a new, food-based nomenclature, in which wines were to be described as evoking specific fruits, vegetables, nuts, flowers, and the like.

Although anthropomorphic language all but disappeared from the academic literature, mainstream wine writers continued to make abundant use of gender- and class-based metaphors. But many wine critics also started to employ a very specific, largely pastoral vocabulary. In 1978, Robert Parker began publishing The Wine Advocate, and although Parker has never shied away from slippery adjectives (he often uses words like hedonistic, sexy, and intellectual), his tasting notes have always stood out for their no-nonsense, just-the-flavors-ma’am approach. Here’s Parker, for instance, on the 1996 Chateau d’Yquem (the great sweet wine of Bordeaux): “[l]ight gold with a tight but promising nose of roasted hazelnuts intermixed with crème brûlée, vanilla beans, honey, orange marmalade, and peach … ”

Over the last two decades or so, this type of tasting note has become the industry standard; most critics nowadays make a point of listing the exact aromas, flavors, and tactile sensations they perceive in a wine. These grab bags of specific and often obscure tastes and scents breed a certain awe and deference among many wine enthusiasts (Gee, he really must be gifted if he can smell all those things—I should heed his recommendations), which is undoubtedly part of their appeal. Wine writers perhaps also feel pressured to use the “right” lingo for fear of losing street cred in the eyes of their peers and other industry insiders. But while the cherry-and-berry imagery may be good for establishing critical authority, its value to the layman is open to debate.

One of the more famous assaults on the new language of wine came from novelist and children’s writer Roald Dahl, a renowned oenophile himself. In 1988, he wrote a letter to Britain’s Decanter magazine in which he lambasted as “tommyrot” the “extravagant, meaningless similes” that were suddenly being used to describe wines. “Wine … tastes primarily of wine—grape-juice, tannin, and so on,” Dahl wrote. “If I am wrong about this, and the great wine-writers are right, then there is only one conclusion. The chateaux in Bordeaux have begun to lace their grape-juice with all manner of other exotic fruit juices, as well as slinging in a bale or two of straw and a few packets of ginger biscuits for extra flavouring. Someone had better look into this.” He went on, “I wonder, by the way, if these distinguished persons know that their language has become a source of ridicule in many sensible wine-drinking households. We sit around reading them aloud and shrieking with laughter.”

Actually, many wine writers, distinguished and otherwise, are acutely aware of the mockery their fanciful jargon attracts. Why cling to it, then? One reason is because it seems to have some basis in reality. Anyone who follows wine criticism closely knows that there is considerable overlap in professional tasting notes. If one critic claims to detect tobacco on the nose of a La Rioja Alta Rioja, chances are another critic will independently sniff out some tobacco as well. A few years ago, I attended a tasting in New York of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines that included several vintages of the fabled grand cru La Tâche. Among other things, I caught a whiff of rose petals on each of the La Tâches. Not long thereafter, I read an article about La Tâche by Allen Meadows, a leading Burgundy critic, in which he noted that one of the signature aromas of La Tâche is dried rose petals. This presented two possibilities: Either we were both suffering from pickled brains, or the scent of roses really was there. Such things happen with enough frequency among experienced tasters to suggest that individual wines do indeed emit very specific, readily detectable aromas and flavors.

More importantly, many of these aromas and flavors have been shown to have a chemical basis. This was the point of an excellent article published in 2005 by The World of Fine Wine, a relatively new British quarterly that has quietly established itself as the best English-language wine journal around. * The essay, titled “The Foundations of Flavour,” was written by Alex Hunt, then a Master of Wine candidate. According to Hunt, some of the most commonly observed fragrances in wines—toast, butter, vanilla, citrus, apples, cherries, pears, honey, herbs—are there because of volatile organic compounds that were either in the grapes themselves or that seeped into the finished juice. For instance, the buttery note often detected in chardonnays is an aroma compound called diacetyl, which is a byproduct of malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that softens the acidity in wines). Hunt suggested that as flavor chemists further probe the molecular structure of wines, scientific explanations will be found for many other aromas. In the meantime, he said, wine critics should be puffing out their chests: “Given that most flavour descriptors have been established in ignorance of their molecular grounds, it is astonishing what competent analysts wine tasters have turned out to be. … In verbis vini veritas? More often than not, as it happens.”

Hear, hear. I think that serious wine evaluation does require discussion of specific tastes and smells. Pace Amerine and Roessler, metaphors based on class, gender, fashion, and architecture can also be helpful. In addition to aromas and flavors, wines have textures, and the only way to adequately convey how a wine feels in the mouth is metaphorically (big, little, fat, thin, velvety, burly, etc.). Of course, the line between incisive and overwrought can be a fine one. British wine expert Michael Broadbent once likened a wine’s bouquet to the smell of schoolgirls’ uniforms (no, he wasn’t arrested). And the late Auberon (son of Evelyn) Waugh, in his wine column for Britain’s Tatler, described one wine as smelling of “a dead chrysanthemum on the grave of a still-born West Indian baby” (no, he wasn’t fired, but he and his editor, Tina Brown, were brought before the Press Council to answer charges of insensitivity).

A bigger problem is that the effort to sniff out all sorts of aromas seems to be an end in itself for many oenophiles. The point of a tasting note is to tell the story of a wine—with brevity, clarity, and hopefully a little brio—and to render a verdict on it. Personally, I’m a lot less interested in learning the exact species of cherry that someone detects in a red Burgundy than in finding out whether the wine is good or bad, what’s good or bad about it, and when might be the optimum time to drink it. Also, because wines evolve both in the glass and in the bottle, the aromatics can change quickly; the nose is just taking a snapshot, which is another reason to not get too carried away with the descriptors. Moreover, just as science is unearthing the reasons why Syrahs and merlots smell the way they do, researchers are also discovering that differences in sensory perception from one individual to the next are more pronounced than previously realized. Which suggests that wine’s language problem may be even more nettlesome than we self-pitying wine writers thought.

Next week: a three-part series on sensory perception and wine.

* Correction, July 12, 2007: This piece originally stated, incorrectly, that “The Foundations of Flavour” was published in 2004. (Return to the corrected sentence.)