Our British visitor last month left a copy of the Financial Times in the Lounge. We were reading in it the other day and nearly choked on our soy-milk-softened Postum: "Wine writing in English has, over the past decade, become almost violently pragmatic." First of all, wine writing: you mean it's a genre? Second of all: violently pragmatic? Don't bet the chewy backbone in your delicately vegetal Cabernet Sauvignon on it.
We confess to a certain prejudice first: here in the Lounge there is a tendency towards teetotalism, on the grounds that a certain lucidity of mind is required for penetrative insight into wordly matters. But lest you think that this is merely the pretext for regarding wine writing as sour grapes, the real interest of the Loungeurs is our abiding reverence for English, and the wish that it not be stretched beyond its limits or traduced by inept application.
Criticism and description of wine (or any sensual experience, for that matter) strives to capture in language - a mainly mental input - what is experienced through other senses. At its best, such criticism gives us a flavor, if you will, of the genuine experience through the use of apt metaphor. At its worst, wine criticism recycles clichés that didn't really work right the first time that someone resorted to them in desperation; before you know it, they've acquired a life of their own without anyone being quite sure of what they mean.
I'll have mine rareSome cases in point: A California reviewer surveying recent German Rieslings notes that "The Spatlese is fleshy and intensely flavored, tasting of apple, pear, quince, and honeysuckle." Fleshy? Hmm. Overweight? Heavy? How about sarcoid? A wine-tasting glossary (see link below) reliably informs us that "A fleshy wine tastes fatter than a meaty wine, exhibiting some excess oiliness if too pronounced." Whoa! Who said this was a steak dinner? It seems that the trope here is in fact the flesh that means animal tissue. Does this lead to a suitable range of metaphors for describing wine qualities? Well, not if you don't actually eat animal flesh. Out of fairness to wine writers, it's possible that the meat/wine connection came about through the fact that they are so often consumed together; or perhaps it's the resemblance of red wine to blood: there's sangria, after all, ultimately from the Latin for blood, sanguis.
But the beastly associations don't stop there. When I have dinner out with my brother and sister-in-law, she never fails to order a glass of Merlot, so I thought I'd fish around for some pointed questions to ask her, first beefing up my vocabulary (and I think it's established that I can use that verb here) with the appropriate catchwords. A review of one Merlot notes "furry tannins and a long dry finish." Furry as in hirsute? Though it doesn't bring a specific palatal quality to mind, this adjective does succeed in putting you off any wine associated with it: like finding somebody's chest hair in your goblet would do. But furry really is about animals, and describing oral sensations as furry - whatever is meant by it - doesn't seem to do them justice.
From whole clothNow here's an odd contradiction: while labeling it as "furry" can turn any wine into commercial vinegar, velvety, and its frequent companion in wine reviews, smooth, are invariably terms of (rather unimaginative, in our view) praise. A sampling of wine reviews will alert you to more velvety tannins than you can upholster an armchair with. We conclude that velvet, perhaps from its association of luxury, has risen above the associations of fur, despite their tactile similarity: the tongue and taste buds seem to tolerate velvety very well, but seeming to steer clear of furry.
The recent film "Sideways" explored the world of wine fandom in California and put a spotlight Pinot Noir, which was the central character's particular obsession. It is said that sales of Pinot Noir increased by as much as 100% in some locations in the wake of the film. Not wanting to fall behind the times, we acquired a vicarious experience of the wine in question here in the Lounge by sampling a number of reviews. One Pinot Noir was said to have "roundly ripened edges." Hmm. Couldn't make sense of this at all, and concluded that you had to drink a lot of it to understand. We tend to avoid putting edgy things in our mouth, for obvious reasons, and even if they're somewhat rounded, this doesn't seem to influence their taste one way or the other. Conclusion: inept metaphor.
Note to reviewers: restraint!
The other thing we observed about Pinot Noir reviews is that they are littered with notes: have you noticed? "Ripe cherry and red berry aromas and flavors pick up appealing bacon and mushroom notes on the finish." (With wine like this, who needs food?) "Spicy notes of oak, coconut, truffle, earth, smoke and briar dominate cherry fruit aroma." But what sort of notes are these? If they were on Post-Its you wouldn't be able to see the bottle. Note is a notorious polyseme in English, but we suspect that the writers mean the one you see off to the right there, "a characteristic emotional quality," though in the wine metaphor, emotion slips out and taste slips in. But we wonder: aren't these wines rather busy? Does a wine need so many notes? Add a few more and you'll need an index before you know it. If someone spoke "with notes of sarcasm, anxiety, gaiety, and delight over a subtext of pure vitriol" you would hardly be able to imagine it. We suggest that the quality, rather than the quantity of descriptive words about wine subtleties might serve the reader better.
In summary, the Loungeurs would like to see wine writers hew a bit closer to the actual experience of tasting the wine and then consult their vocabulary - or perhaps the Visual Thesaurus - for suitable tokens of their experience, rather than diving into the vat of aged wine cliché.
Out of respect for those that take seriously to the world of wine, we offer a few forays:
Offers a wine tasting glossary where you can actually read what people think they mean by various standard wine-tasting terms. If you've already mastered the terminology and are ready to see it at work, the sort of "violently pragmatic" writing that the FT lamented (every wine rated with stars!) can be found at
But if you go in for the more esoteric, jargon-heavy variety in which oenophile amateurs let loose their musings on the unsuspecting public, you can do no better than
Hazards include somewhat hollow mid-palates and tannins that rear their heads!
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves
- Rate this article: