I detest wine scoring. Therefore I am condemned to both read and write tasting notes and after twenty-five years in the wine trade I must confess to both depression and desperation regarding the current language of wine (including my own).
In 1919 a fellow named Strunk published a small book about writing called ‘The Elements of Style’. He was concerned about the takeover of advertising language, and when we read today’s appalling descriptions of various wines, it is evident that Strunk saw far into the future, and alas, he was not wrong. As an exporter with close to a hundred small estates in the portfolio and over a thousand references, I quake when asked for descriptors and am thinking seriously of tinkering with the blurbs found on the back label of a bestseller and sending them off to our customers.
For instance: ‘this wine has a sense of gravitas and intelligence utterly beyond lesser winemakers in the appellation….this is a wholly satisfying wine which cleverly subverts tradition and expectation… and you will certainly rush to buy the next vintage’.
‘a genuine masterpiece, the first great Burgundy of the twenty-first century…’
‘…a major wine….a major winemaker…..a big, beautiful wine…..’
So much better than gobs and oodles of cherryberry fruit, roasted stones, and sweaty saddle leather.
It is very hard to describe fine wines particularly those of Burgundy where the two grape varieties are what I call interpreter grapes with no taste of their own and the responsibility of showing off the various ‘terroirs’. Aromas are at best fleeting and exceedingly complex, the colours display a palette worthy of a gemmologist’s trained eye. It is easier to tackle the body of a fine Burgundy, to note tannins when they are present, to talk of lightness or heaviness (although any reference to delicacy and finesse is almost a guarantee that such bottles will gather dust on a retailer’s shelf).
The subject is of great importance because the potential customer believes in the written word and is puzzled, disappointed, and downright cross when he or she has carefully read a case card or a review only to find that the wine, as it is served, possesses few of the characteristics of its publicity other than the visible fact of being white or red.
I recently read a book, ‘Wine-Tasters’ Logic, Thinking About Wine and Enjoying It’, by Pat Simon. The short chapter on ‘Wine Words’ is well worth the price of admission. He enters a plea for precision, if one would like to use the word ‘steely’, put a piece of ordinary steel into one’s mouth and note the sensations. (He also advises courtesy and patience when listening to someone else’s jargon).
Therefore, I enter a plea for more sober, less fanciful ‘communicators’ dosed with a small measure of originality. A language that embraces Mr. Simon’s ‘sérieux’ but does not dismiss the thought that a crisp Chablis might be compared to Fred Astaire.
Becky Wasserman Hone
Burgundy, March 12th, 2003