The unexplored language of wine?

01 October, 2010

T he Inuit languages famously have more than 50 words to describe different types of snow, enabling native speakers to distinguish between a landscape that is variously fresh, firm, packed, rippled, crusty, wind-beaten, threatening and ideal for building an igloo. If snow is what surrounds you on a daily basis, you develop a nuanced vocabulary to describe it.

I guess this explains why, according to Adam Jacot de Boinod’s book I Never Knew There Was a Word For It, the Albanian language has 27 words for types of moustache, from thin, top-lip affairs to bushy, handlebar extravaganzas. There’s clearly a lot of facial hair in Albania.

When it comes to wine, English has no such depth of vocabulary. We’ve got plonk, vino, rotgut, bubbly, fizz and wine itself, but not a lot else. There’s no equivalent of Germany’s dreimännerwein (three-man wine), where two people have to hold you down while a third pours the liquid down your throat.

Yet even in countries where wine is a part of everyday life (France, Spain, Portugal and Italy), the language used to describe it is comparatively impoverished. The French don’t have anything like as many words for wine as the Inuit do for snow, or the Albanians for moustaches.

ife would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to paraphrase. Imagine if there was an English word for a first wine of the day, a seduction wine, a wine that you can charge on expenses or one to get rid of lingering dinner guests? If the words were memorable, they might help to make wine a bit more fun.

This raises a more general question about the modern language of wine. The words we use are very different from those employed by people like TG Shaw and Professor George Saintsbury in the 19th century, both of whom were perfectly happy to describe a wine as “very fine” and leave it at that.

Today’s lexicon seeks to convey a more accurate picture of what a wine smells and tastes like, employing terms that describe aroma, texture, intensity, length and flavour. Modern tasting notes are much longer than their historical counterparts, sometimes running to hundreds of words for fruits, flowers, nuts and so on. It was Robert Parker who started this particular trend, but almost everyone else has followed it. A “good” tasting note is a long-winded one.

Even those of us who favour shorter descriptions are arguably trying to do something that is impossible. Wine is notoriously (or gloriously, depending on your point of view) subjective. My blackberries and damsons are your blueberries and cherries. In that sense, any tasting note is doomed to failure. It can only convey a personal impression – a snapshot, if you like – of a moment.

We may be groping towards the truth (or our version of it), but the effort is still worthwhile. At its best, wine is a uniquely complex drink. Even a mid-priced bottle of supermarket red is far more nuanced than many people assume. Nailing its taste down on a page may be difficult, but it’s better than the alternative: what the US wine merchant Terry Theise calls the “wine simplification industry”, otherwise known as dumbing down.

In his new book, Reading Between the Wines, he calls upon wine lovers to “remystify” their favourite beverage, celebrating nuance and the unpredictability of vintage variation, rather than expecting it to be the same every time. “Would you rather watch a ball game as it’s played, not knowing the outcome?” he asks, “or would you rather cue the DVD and watch a tape of a game already played, with no element of surprise.”?Theise has a point. By simplifying wine (a necessary step towards its current mass-market popularity, it could be argued), are we not in danger of over-simplifying it? Has the wine industry’s reliance on brand name, grape variety and country of origin as a way of explaining wine obscured its brilliant but challenging diversity, its sense of place if you like??It’s important not to exaggerate here. The humblest back label contains more useful information than a 19th-century tasting note. But I still think we could do more to make wine truly interesting, rather than just another FMCG beverage.

To do so, we need to convince people to engage their senses, emotions and powers of description from time to time, to distinguish between wines that require thought and reflection and those that are best glugged without ceremony.

The hard bit is to achieve this without appearing elitist, snobbish or patronising, without alienating new drinkers before they’ve even begun.

But, make no mistake, for the greater wine industry, rather than the big brand owners, selling complexity is one of the great challenges – right up there with climate change and poor profitability. It’s challenging, but not impossible. After all, if the Inuit can juggle 50 words for snow, why can’t we do the same with wine?




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