By Doris Blum
Wine-speak – cryptic for some, eccentric nonsense for others. Didier Michel expresses himself colourfully, impressing large wine producers and distributors.
“When someone says something tastes of raspberries how do I know whether we’re both thinking of the same kind of raspberry? Some taste sweet, while others are almost bitter.” Didier Michel takes exception to the “florid” comparisons so common to wine descriptions: leather, plum, chocolate or celery are just some examples of this flowery repertoire. The French chromatist and colour artist with a diploma from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Appliqués in Paris started transferring wine terminology into colours around thirty years ago. In France he is now considered unequalled in this field. Major wine producers like Moët & Chandon in the Champagne, Château Figeac in the Bordeaux region or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy have all worked with him in the past.
“When someone says a wine reminds them of melon with a hint of grapefruit, I say: melon consists mainly of water and sugar, and sometimes smells of honey and pineapple,” says Didier Michel. He defines the sun-hungry fruit as a warm yellow, the grapefruit as a pale pink and the contentious raspberry, of course, as red. Didier Michel is an acolyte of the Bauhaus colour design theory and works on the principle that colours have a direct influence on our senses.
Unlike language. Using a highly developed technique he has so far assigned a colour to some 700 different aromas. In future, such chromatic “bar codes” could be used to describe wine on menus, wine labels and elsewhere.
In Switzerland too, the Vaud-based association Clos, Domaines & Châteaux has had Didier Michel ‘decode’ several of their Chasselas wines. André Fuchs, managing director of Schenk S.A., one of the top wine producers in the country’s west, describes the colour codes as groundbreaking.
Didier Michel is not the first artist to devote himself to the colourful language of wines. The eccentric Catalan Salvador Dalí, for example, painted a whole series of paintings dedicated to the subject. His characterizations are simply named “fiery wines” or “purple wines” and the associated comments don’t make matters any clearer: “Purple was always an expression of sovereignty, dignity and power. Therefore,” Dali wrote, “it shouldn’t be surprising that the top wines from the Burgundy revel in these deep reds.”
Deciphering wine aroma in the laboratories of research institutes is nothing new. With the aid of gas chromatography, a method widely used in analytical chemistry, some 600 aromatic components common to wine were discovered and identified as early as the seventies. And these components are what it’s all about, even though in chemical terms they only account for a tiny fraction of what you’ll find in a glass of wine. The lion’s share is made up of water, ethanol, sugar and traces or glycerin. In linguistic terms, a wine’s overall aroma is simply referred to as its “bouquet”, even if not all of the aromatic notes are so fragrant; for instance cat’s pee or wet wool. And even though man with his relatively primitive olfactory organ is only able to smell a tiny part of the rich tapestry of aromas, whether it be fresh hay, tar or truffles, the perception thereof is hotly debated.
The need to extol the aromatic virtues of wine is probably as old as the drink itself. From Horace to Goethe, right up to Stuart Pigott today: “Black, black and black again, the most velvety night sky, a vast velvety curtain blowing in the warm wind as if weightless,” the wine journalist expresses his enthralment during a wine-tasting. But how do you explain this to the layman?
Until around forty years ago, wine books were a very different matter; and at best wine periodicals were only available for the specialist trade. This is because communication was generally highly specialized. It’s hardly surprising then that voices were raised in joy when French colleges compiled a comprehensive wine-tasting vocabulary in the seventies: elderflower, banana, tobacco, musk, and so on. More generally: the fragrances of flowers, fruit, plants and animals. At long last, the sniffing and slurping started to be more fun.
The British take a cooler though no less popular approach. When Michael Broadbent’s guide “Wine Tasting” was published in a German edition in 1976 it caused quite a sensation. Like no one else before him, the multiple award-winning wine tasting expert summed up the phenomenon of oenophilia. He is rather reluctant to revel in the world of flowers and plants, and even considers some comparisons to be nothing but “eccentric nonsense”. “It is difficult enough to analyze and describe common smells. And while it’s hard to identify and describe the individual elements of a wine’s bouquet, it’s nigh on impossible to convince someone else of it,” he says.
The British are considered the originators of informative and understandable communication on wine. Hugh Johnson numbers among them, as does Jancis Robinson, a rare female in an army of male experts. This much-lauded wine journalist – also hailed as the “International Wine Communicator of the Year” – often makes curious analogies when looking for suitable terms: for instance, damp straw, fruit cake or gun powder. Why? The terms are only of use if they cause bells to ring for the taster. She refers to them as “aha terms”, and these are highly personal.
As an example she tells of one experience from the early days of her career. During a wine tasting, a wine from the Hermitage left her completely at a loss. She knew it was a Syrah grape, but how to describe the flavor? No fruit or flower was any help at all until someone supplied the words “burnt rubber”. As a result of that experience, Jancis Robinson encourages everyone to come up with their own key words.
- C.Lange/F.Lange, “Crashkurs Weinprobe”, Hallwag Verlag
- Eva Heller, “Wie Farben wirken”, rororo Sachbuch
- Didier Michel’s website
- Jancis Robinson’s website
[Translated from the German. Originally published in Switzerland’s Basler Zeitung on February 9, 2007]