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Speaking of Wine
By Marguerite Thomas
Feb 18, 2014
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The words we use to talk about wine say a lot about who we are and how we think about wine.  Obviously, those of us who write about it have a particular interest in choosing the most suitable words to describe wine, but even interested consumers can learn to be more precise, more honest, really, in their choice of words when talking about it.  I would even suggest that the words we use often determine how we think about wine. 

Vinous descriptions are never easy, for the language of wine is metaphor.  As many before me have pointed out, the best we can do in trying to pin down specific flavors is to say:  “This Cabernet tastes like blackberries.” A wine always tastes and smells like something else.  But there are bigger and better ways to discuss wine.  Yes, flavors and aromas are important, but so are sweet, sour, and savory.  Texture is more important than whether a wine smells like a saddle or tastes like a berry:  Is the wine crisp, creamy, silky, satiny, grainy, sleek, smooth, or thin? What about a wine’s history, its place of origin, and the way that specific wine fits into the heritage of where it’s from--shouldn’t we consider these things if we really want to fully experience any given wine?

We each bring our own temperament to the task of describing wine.  Your observations may be precise and clinical, while mine are apt to be more emotional.  Either way, the most important thing about a wine is how it makes you feel when you are drinking it.  I’m not saying that words like “blueberry” and “oakiness” are worthless.  I frequently use such descriptors myself, but part of the problem with them (besides the fact that they can be a lazy way to describe wine) is that they are not usually very illuminating--as my friend and fellow Wine Review Online columnist Rebecca Murphy said when we were discussing this issue recently: “These are too often meaningless descriptors.  After all, one man’s ‘blueberry’ is apt to be a ‘blackberry’ to someone else.”  Adjectives such as “vibrant,” “shy,” and “boisterous” say a lot more to me about a wine than whether it will taste like some kind of berry.

Few people write more evocatively about the subject than the wine importer Terry Thiese.  “Be free with image and metaphor if that’s how the wine strikes you.…Think about the emotion it elicits,” he has said.  And really, that’s the most important thing about a wine:  How it makes you feel when you drink it.  This is a sensual, rather than analytic, approach to the subject, but when I taste a wine I first look for words to describe the sensation it provokes (tingly, rapturous, bored, enamored, angry, surprised). 

Because this way of assessing a wine forces one to search for the wine’s soul rather than its superficial characteristics, and also to dig deeper to find one’s own reactions to it, this becomes a more challenging way to learn about the wine than simply noting that it should get 91 points and has hints of green apple.  It requires concentration, mindfulness and practice, but for those of us eager to get away from the lazy automatic jargon of wine, it’s worth bringing to the undertaking what Henry James described as “perception at the pitch of passion and expression.” Of course James was referring to literary criticism, not wine, but still, shouldn’t one’s experience with wine be personal and passionate rather than dull and formulaic?