Archive for the ‘Books on wine’ Category

Cork Dork – fast track to sommelier

In Cork Dork (Penguin, 2017) Bianca Bosker writes engagingly about her 18-month journey from normal social wine drinker to Certified Sommelier, a first step towards the prestigious Master Sommelier (MS) title. A year and a half may not seem a very long time for this. However, on this account she packed in far more experience, learning, high quality research and drive into one year than most of us would manage in five. Her core skill set is that of the journalist: relentlessly pursuing her story, showing Olympic gold medal levels of skill at networking and persuading top professionals of all sorts to let her into their worlds, and summarising all this experience and knowledge in a highly readable way.  Having recently read and struggled with the science of how we humans process smell and taste – see Neuroenology – she not only summarizes this in an accessible way but persuades a neuroscientist to scan her brain when she is blind tasting to see how it functions – having travelled to South Korea for this opportunity.  The competitive drive shown is remarkable. It is not an accident that she gave up her job as the tech editor for the Huffington Post because she heard that there was such a thing as a competition for the world’s best sommelier.  

I read this book for two reasons. First, as a Master of Wine (MW) student I knew very little about the world of the trainee sommelier in New York, one of the world’s fine wine hotspots.  There is a certain rivalry between the two clans of wine super-geeks who have similar short post-nominals beginning with the same letter: MS and MW.  This book fills that gap very neatly, as is summed up in the sub-title: ‘a wine-fueled adventure among the obsessive sommeliers, big bottle hunters and rogue scientists who taught me to live for taste’.  

Second, I thought I might well be faced with another year as an MW Practical Only student, anticipating, correctly, that I had not been successful in the tasting exams I took last June. I needed someone to fire up my interest in tasting again, for what will be a fifth year.  Again, Cork Dork admirably does that.  (By the way ‘cork dork’ is a term used by somms of themselves.) MS students are if anything more obsessed with tasting and elaborate tasting descriptors than the cooly clinical and logical world of MW tasting. The more descriptors the better; ‘oyster shell kelp yoghurt’ may not be a thing at all but it is a more flamboyant description of Chablis than would ever be encouraged in the MW world.  But we do share a lot – an absurd level of concentration on the aromas, flavours and textures of the better bottles of wine made around the world; the fear and compulsion of trying to pass ridiculously demanding exams; thinking nothing of flying hundreds of miles to visit a wine region or even a tasting group; and spending all our discretionary income and more on wine when others are happy with a bottle of something affordable.  In normal life being able to tell by blind tasting that a Chardonnay is from a cooler rather than a warmer part of Sonoma is not a genuine life skill but in MW/MS world it certainly is.  I needed to be re-energised and Cork Dork certainly did the trick.

What else did I take away from this book, apart from the pleasure of reading it?  First, an enormous respect for the service element of the work of the sommelier.  The somm is there to help other people, to meet their wine needs and, if possible to recommend the wine which will really make their visit to the restaurant memorable, even, occasionally, life-changing.  But to do that they must lay tables, lug wine boxes around, get service temperatures right, polish glasses, move elegantly around a restaurant while balancing 11 glasses and a bottle of something expensive on a tray, and of course be a team player with everyone else in the restaurant.  It combines a huge and detailed knowledge, physical skill, social grace … and a humility to act as though the customer is always in the right and to serve him or her, however little they may know or care. Respect!

Second, the depth of a somm’s wine knowledge must be equalled by their ability to read people and their motivations in a few seconds. A really good somm has to be able to intuit what sort of interaction the customer needs so that any recommendation or suggestion comes as a welcome tip from someone who is on their side – while of course wanting to upsell, to increase the restaurant’s and ultimately his or her own income.  Humble service, consummate performer and intuitive sales person all rolled into one … and all in a matter of a minute or two.  Yet more respect! MW students don’t have to worry about this at all – we can be as curmudgeonly and/or as arrogant as we like, at least until we get into the real world.  

Cork Dork is a terrific read.  It is packed full of human interest, the participative anthropologist’s ‘let’s live with this tribe, to learn about them’, it informs and amuses in equal measure.  

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Neuroenology

In general wine tasters and especially wine drinkers spend little time thinking about how we generate the taste of wine. Normal drinkers just decided whether they like the wine or not, obsessed wine tasters have one hundred and one other questions but rarely this one.  But at least for curious, how human beings can make the fine distinctions that we take for granted in wine tasting, how they get every last drop of interest from their favourite drink, is a rarely discussed. It is this gap which Gordon M. Shepherd’s Neuroenology. How the brain creates the taste of wine, Colombia, 2017 aims to fill.  

I have a bit of a pet hate thing about book and subtitles. In the effort to sell books, titles and subtitles regularly promise more than they can or do deliver.  A good case in point was Lisa Perotti-Brown’s book Taste like a wine critic which should have been called ‘Wine Quality – how wine production affects the wine in your glass’.  But paradoxically Gordon Shepherd’s book actually does rather more than demonstrate ‘how the brain creates the taste of wine’, his main point. In a fascinating chapter, he explains first how the mouth, tongue and nasal passages have been developed to enable human beings to manipulate food and liquids in the mouth so that we can extract the aromas and flavours in all the subtlety and range that we experience.  This is the most approachable and perhaps the most helpful chapter in the book.  

The main chapters of the book are given over to a detailed description of the mechanisms whereby the brain ‘creates’ the taste of wine.  The subject matter makes for a very challenging read for non scientists but the book is basically clear, concise and comprehensive – as confirmed by a neuroscientist reviewer elsewhere (The World of Fine Wine, issue 56, 2017, p. 62) However, most readers of this books are basically going to be wine lovers and the issue is that the implications for wine tasting drawn out here are very limited. In the end the book is therefore informative but frustrating.  

But there are many good things along the way. Here for example are the tips for tasting based on the different phases of the tasting experience: wine on its own as it enters the mouth; mouth mixed with saliva; getting the most from the retronasal smell; wine as you swallow it: 

Tips for tasting 

  • start with moderate sips to keep wine in front part of mouth to experience with and without saliva
  • agitate vigorously to maximise stimulation of mouthfeel to sense stringency and the release of volatiles
  • keep back of the mouth open to facilitate retronasal smell
  • let wine leak over valleculae (grooves just behind the root of the tongue) in order to get hint of aroma before swallowing/spitting

These procedures make up to some extent for loss of swallowing tasting, p. 47

To pick up this very last point, I am surprised just from personal experience that the claim is made that ‘swallowing exposes the wine to the greatest possible extent to internal smell’ (p. 3). This phenomenon is called the aroma burst (p. 53), that moment at the end of the act of tasting where the aromatic character of wine is most powerful. Perhaps this is the difference between wine consumers and those who have had a lot of experience or indeed training in wine tasting. For me the aroma burst post-spitting is as powerful as post-swallowing.  

If you love knowing how things work – including the extraordinary business of wine tasting – and you have a strongly technical bent, this could be the book for you.  

 

 

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Authentic or natural?

Review of Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW, Authentic wine: towards natural and sustainable winemaking, University of California Press, 2011

The debate between natural and conventional wine makers is normally something of a shouting match between two sides who really do not want to meet and find a middle way.  On the one hand the natural tribe pride themselves on a rejection of the many and complex interventions of modern grape growing and ‘industrial’ wine making. In addition, the true believers bolster their position with various semi-philosophical stances and value systems.  On the other, conventional wine making gets ever more sophisticated in the winery with a technical solution for just about every difficulty, while claiming that the best wine is really made in the vineyard.  Into this debate and occasional slanging match, Authentic wine is an attempt to evaluate the claims of both sides of the argument from a scientific and a classic European-formed quality wine perspective. Its plea is to move the argument on – deeper and wider.  Deeper because it wants to get behind the slogans and wider because the authors take a ‘vineyard to the end consumer’ view.  Curiously, some supposedly natural wine makers don’t farm organically, while few commentators take wider sustainability and ethical working considerations into account.  So full marks here for taking a really broad look at these important questions. 

Any one who has talked to more than one natural wine maker will know that they belong to a very diverse and loosely defined tribe. There is no agreed definition on what ‘natural’ means.  The term refers more to a general mind-set than a formal standard. In fact some almost perversely insist that it can’t be defined.  But there are some big low vinesblind spots. As Authentic wine points out, nearly every new vineyard is planted with grafted vines – hardly very ‘natural’ – and the supposedly ‘traditional’ copper and Bordeaux mixture treatments are chemical interventions which includes a heavy metal which would never pass the test if it were a brand new treatment today.  On the other side of the divide, conventional wine making is much more intelligent than it was. It uses many fewer products more carefully under the influence of the natural wine movement and the cost of treatments.   One of the strongest points of this book is to show how virtually all wine makers are making decisions on a spectrum of intervention or non-intervention. Very few belong unequivocally in one camp.

The diversity of view on what constitutes ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ can easily be illustrated by a comparison of two highly intelligent accounts, Goode and Harrop (p. 3) on the one hand and Giovanni Bietti’s in the introduction to his book on the natural wines of Italy:*

Goode and Harrop

Bietti

  Wines made in an artisanal manner – one or more people to guide the entire productive process in field and winery
Sustainable viticulture – vineyard as an agroecosystem, use beneficials [eg local composts] and cover crops, vine spacing and trellising to all vine to find natural balance The health of the vineyard – wines made from healthy grapes not treated with pesticides, systemics or weeding agents but from living vineyards.  Healthy vines can defend themselves
Naturally made – add as little as possible, fewest interventions possible Respect for the grapes in the winery – the more you add, the more you intervene, the less natural the wine.  Natural wine is made from grapes with, if necessary, minimal added SO2
Sense of place – allow vineyard to express itself in the wine  
  Difference – wines should be different year to year and taste different from conventional wines (though not all natural wines are well made). Less flower/fruit, more earth, vegetation, meat flavours
Fault free – wine faults obscure the sense of place  
Environmentally sensitive – minimize carbon footprint at every stage from grape to shelf. Packaging and transport are as important as vineyard and winery.   
Appropriate ripeness – pick early enough to retain freshness and avoid high potential alcohol  
  Digestibility and nutritional value – wines should go well with food and aid digestion, give energy; natural wines have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities; not a matter of hedonism, prestige and ‘absolute quality’ as wine

Of course the head lines conceal quite a lot of agreement.  Both would certainly call for environmental sensitivity and a sense of place in wine. But the differences are quite marked too.  While Bietti insists on the importance of artisan production, Goode and Harrop argue strongly that this is an unrealistic luxury which would confine good wine to the rich.  They might find some common ground on ‘fault free’ but they come at if from opposing starting points – for Goode and Harrop wine quality and commercial viability come first, while for Bietti being ‘natural’ is an absolute.  In another area, Bietti, much influenced by Michael Pollan’s food philosophy, emphasises the ‘digestibility’ and superior nutritional value of natural wine, which is not discussed at all in Authentic wine. Rather, the latter has a broader pragmatic sustainability agenda, and a singular focus on high alcohol levels as a wine fault. In summary, Bietti is promoting the natural wines agenda, while Goode and Harrop argue that we have to expand the category to the wider one of ‘authentic wine’.

new woodAs an English pragmatist I am of course in favour of a ‘both/and’ position.  Organic and biodynamic growers are among the most inspirational people you will find in the world of wine. They are responsible for some of the world’s best wines many of them at reasonable price levels.  My profiles of Massa Vecchia (Tuscan) or of Maison Cazes (190ha vineyard in Roussillon farmed biodynamically)  are outstanding examples. At the same time, if we are going to change the world of wine in general we certainly need approaches to tempt large producers to change their ways substantially.  Here I am entirely with Goode and Harrop.  

Apart from its overall argument, this book is a valuable set of discussions of many of the most important topics in the world of wine – organic v. integrated management of vineyards, wild  v . selected yeasts, wine faults (including high alcohol – wines with high levels of alcohol tend to taste the same wherever they come from and so lack tipicity) and ways in which to reduce wine’s carbon foot print (reducing our dependence on heavy glass bottles for example).  There are substantial chapters on the vexed subject of sulphites in wine where they take the line that for most producers it is better to use effective amounts of SO2 at the key points in the process than try to reduce usage in general terms.  They argue that the real answer to high levels of alcohol is better vineyard practice so that the grapes which are picked have the correct sugar levels and balancing acidity.  At the same time, more controversially,  they are prepared to countenance removing alcohol by the invasive reverse osmosis process, rather than having an over-alcoholic final wine.  This shows that ultimately the authors back quality and commercial pragmatism, rather than a simple principled stand.

In this context it is worth adding that in general this book is written in a highly accessible style. Dr Jamie Goode is a scientist by training but for some reason – presumably to make the book look less intimidating? – he has appears here without his title. This is a bit misleading as one of the strengths of the book is the attempt to explain complicated matters to non-scientists. For example, the chapter on natural wine making is mostly a discussion running to nearly 30 pages of both how sulphur dioxide works in the chemistry of wine and how some artisan and commercial wine makers are attempting to do without adding it.  Just occasionally a technical term is used without explanation (‘anabolism’ p. 193) but in general the arguments are accessible for quite a demanding subject matter. There is the occasional editorial lapse too: there is no brief description of the key differences between organic and biodynamic viticulture before the long evaluation of their approaches; the average weight of a glass bottle is given as 400g on p.227 and 500g on p. 225.  These are minor glitches.

The scientific bent is important. For example, we learn that despite the recent trend for biodynamic viticulture, there are remarkably few unimpeachable studies of whether it has benefits over organic viticulture.  John Reganold’s study of 1993 found higher soil quality with more organic content and microbial activity, but didn’t separate out the organic elements which contributed to the better biodynamic results.  Some studies were not published in peer-reviewed journals and thus the standard of scholarship is open to question. While organic and biodynamic approaches are reported to outperform conventional agriculture in terms of soil quality and biodiversity (p. 64), Goode and Harrop can only report on one study, Jennifer Reeves (2003), which directly compared organic and biodynamic viticulture, screening out other variables. The study reported no significant advantage for the latter. 

This state of affairs points to an urgent need for substantial research in this area before any reliable conclusions be drawn.  A big part of the problem is that individual artisan growers are just not interested in scientific research. In fact they can see science as part of the enemy – reasonably enough give that science (allied with agribusinesses) resulted in the systematic overuse of chemical products in earlier decades.  On the other side, scientists don’t want to deal with people whose value systems are, or appear to be, anti-scientific. Meanwhile the world of wine needs the two hostile tribes to park their differences temporarily and risk meeting on neutral ground. You would think that with the number of growers getting into organics and biodynamics there should now be a commercial demand for some proper studies. 

All-in-all this is an excellent book which can profitably read at a number of levels.  It will certainly be of use to wine students (Diploma to MW level) but as long as you can cope with (or skip) the substantial scientific sections, it can be enjoyed by a much wider audience.  I doubt that the proposal for a formal kite-marked ‘authentic wine’ category will catch on. But it is vital – for wine quality, for the health of the industry and, not least, for its contribution to a sustainable approach to living on this planet – that this debate makes progress. 

 

 

* G Bietti, Vini naturali d’Italia, Manuale del bere sano, Volume 1, Italia Centrale, Edizioni Estemporanee, Roma, 2010, pp. 20-7

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Finding the holy grail? Benjamin Lewin’s In search of Pinot Noir

Review of Benjamin Lewin MW, In search of Pinot Noir, Vendange Press, Dover, 2011

I picked up this book with real excitement on two counts. First, as a self confessed Pinotfile (both Noir and Gris, happy with Blanc too) I was thrilled to find a full length, substantial treatment of this great grape variety.  Second, I am just beginning a ‘Sangiovese in its various expressions’ project. While Sangiovese is a much poorer traveller than Pinot Noir, this book does offer a model for my project. 

Benjamin Lewin brings a great deal to the party.  He has the significant advantage of being a scientist and so can handle both the technical aspects of wine and the statistical material with aplomb.  The nearly 400Five Pinots pages of text are well illustrated with tables, charts, maps and what I take to be the author’s own photos.  In addition there are good endnotes which point to the author’s sources.  So this is a big book and reflects a huge amount of work.  He is also an MW and so has done the hard yards in terms of wine study and tasting. He sensibly includes a lot of tasting notes for regions other than Burgundy on the grounds that the wine press is awash with Burgundy notes but is a little short of records of Pinot Noir in the Ahr, in northern Italy, in Chile, New Zealand and so on.  The tasting notes are helpfully congregated at the end of chapters so as not to clutter the main text.  So there is a major resource here if you want to know what individual bottles taste like in Graubunden (no, me neither), Russian River or Martinborough.  While no doubt Pinot is grown somewhere that is not commented on here – I could offer one, somewhat ambitious, southern Tuscan location – the coverage is excellent.  While Burgundy of course does get detailed treatment, what is unusual about this book is that so does all the other important Pinot growing areas.

The author starts with the questions to which wine lovers wants answers.  To what extent are wine styles affected by terroir and to what extent by wine making decisions?  How do the ‘other’ regions compare to the heights of Burgundy itself?  ‘Is there only one true path for Pinot Noir or have plantings in new places revealed alternative truths for this fascinating grape?’ (flap jacket)  If the holy grail for wine makers around the world is to emulate Burgundy, have they succeeded? 

In the end, the answers given here are, like the holy grail, somewhat elusive.  After the richness of the grand tour of major Pinot producing areas, the concluding chapter first wrestles (somewhat surprisingly for a Pinot around the worldconclusion) with the question of ‘what are we looking for?’ and then produces Domaine de Romanée Conti as the ultimate example of Pinot.  While the latter might provoke the thought that we did not need to read 400 pages to come to that view, the former question does need answering.  Benjamin Lewin’s view is that  we are looking for aromatic and palate complexity and wines which can develop with age.  As he says, that applies to any fine wine. So the further wish list is sheer sensuality, silky elegance or delicacy (pp. 369-70).    Again, Pinot lovers are unlikely to argue for long over that while you maintain what could be called a Burgundian paradigm.  And the author does point out that price in the market would back this judgement. 

There is another case to be made however.  The thing about long term relationships is that you internalise one another’s preferences .  Give me a menu and I will be able to tell you what dishes my wife is likely to choose – and I am sure she could do the same for me. When we taste wines together she will nearly always prefer the young, fresh, refreshingly youthful wines and I will go for the supposedly more serious, longer aged ones. Apply this to Pinot and you could argue that the reliably fruit-led but not overly extracted wines of Marlborough and Central Otago are better than the lottery that is red Burgundy.  While arguing that no other Pinots come close to the complexity and subtlety of good Grand Cru Burgundy in successful years, Benjamin Lewin also points out that a lot of Grand Cru Burgundy fails to live up to this billing.  As we all know to our cost, this is also the case for Premier Cru and village wines, while too much Bourgogne rouge is simply pale and uninteresting. So perhaps we should factor ‘reliable performance’ into any estimation of quality? 

All Pinot lovers and students will want to and need to refer to Benjamin Lewin’s book.  Like too many bottles of red Burgundy, it does have its frustrations. It feels that it really needed an experienced editor to shape the material so that he had to summarise his chapter by chapter conclusions. What does Pinot from the Ahr typically taste like? – the answer is there but is touched on in passing in mid chapter: it has no common style. Similarly the conclusion of the book as a whole introduces new material rather than synthesizing, reflecting on  and taking further the valuable ground that has already been covered.  Note to self: stand back from the fascinating detail and get the big picture stuff right.  Now let’s open another bottle of Pinot and see if its producer has found that holy grail. 

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Wine, people, place: Nicholas Belfrage’s and Jon Wyand’s Tuscany

Nicholas Belfrage MW, The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy.  A regional and village guide to the best wines and their producers, Fine Wine Editions, Aurum Press, London, 2009 

_TUS9370Volpaia

Nicholas Belfrage is a well-known figure on the English wine scene, a wine trader and author of the best general introduction to Italian wine.  An American, now based in Chianti Rùfina, he is particularly well placed to comment on Tuscany.  As he declares here, he set out to make his mark on the English wine scene, obsessed with Bordeaux, by specializing in then unfashionable Italy while establishing his credentials by getting his MW.  His subversive undermining of the stuffy English scene has been a conspicuous success.  He has been helped by the glamorous image of all things Italian (or rather, selected images of Italy), given new life since the 1990 World Cup.  But every page of this book makes you want to visit the places he writes about, to meet the people (including the winemakers whose pictures appear here) and to try the wines. 

_TUS2678Poliziano

CharlotteGreeneTUS0809Potentino

Writing about wine is inherently difficult.  You can avoid the problem by focusing on all sorts of things, many of them interesting and helpful: the people, the land, agriculture, wine making, the science or even the wine market.  But none of these convey much about the wine itself.  Tasting notes are, well, literally dry, but often helpful and perhaps the best we can do.  Belfrage tackles the problem with  a good mix of people, land, wine craft and tasting notes.  But his key attribute is  enthusiasm, laced with a dry sense of humour.   His excellent two volume survey of Italy is now beginning to date (1999 and 2001) and perhaps suffered from a low budget – small page size, basic maps, no colour pictures.  In this new book all this is put to right.  He is hugely helped in his task by the photography of Jon Wyand.  (The photos in this post are Jon’s – thank you to him for providing them.) Although described as a specialist in wine photography – and the book has its share of trademark Tuscan landscapes – what really jumps off the page are the portraits of owners and wine makers.  So, off the page, come a host of Tuscan aristocrats, technical magicians, Tuscan and Italian sons (mainly) of the soil, English, French, Dutch and German émigrés and growers.  A few important women have also made their mark:  Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti, Rita Tua, Elisabetta Geppetti and even the Englishwoman, Charlotte Horton at Castello di Potentino (see picture). 

Trebbiano_TUS9656Volpaia.VinSanto

The heart of the book is the series of profiles of wine people and places, drawing no doubt on the magazine format of ‘The World of Fine Wine’.  There is no satisfactory English word to translate cantina – the place you make and store wine , but which stands for the whole enterprise.  ‘Cellar’ is too static, winery too technical, company too coldly commercial.  In these pages, you get a flavour of all these and more:  the people who give the work its character, the places that they own or where they work, the vineyards and micro-climates, the grape varieties they have chosen to work with, their wine-making and marketing philosophy.  The format also allows selective tasting notes, with, a rare treat in Italy, notes from tastings through a range of vintages. Biondi-Santi, the inventor of the style of Brunello, gets the most extensive treatment, with ten wines from 2004 back to 1891. 

The profiles of place and people are preceded by a fine introduction – history, soil types, grape varieties and winemaking.  Belfrage’s great value here is his detailed knowledge of current trends, experiments with clones of Sangiovese in the vineyard and blending in the cantina

Are there any downsides?  With high quality reproductions of Wyand’s excellent photographs, there was the temptation to make a great ‘coffee table’ book with large format pictures, but actually the smaller format is more practical and can be read.  Belfrage’s modest forays into Umbria, Le Marche and even southern Romagna make sense, even if they are only 10% of the book but it might have been better to stick to Tuscany, a big enough subject in its own right. 

_BRG3670Antinori

The lists of ‘the best of the best’ are rightly kept to the very end – the Tuscan wine scene is so varied it would have been shame not to enjoy its diversity before the guilty pleasure of handing out the prizes.  Of course this could lead to hours of debate.  I was delighted to see that Poggio Le Scalette’s Il Carbonaione gets an honourable mention here in ‘Ten Great Sangioveses’ – we have just drunk a memorable bottle of the 2004 which we were given when we visited. There will always be differences of opinion – no Vecchie Terre di Montefili for example; and is the Rothschild-backed Rocca di Frassinello too new to make the cut for its elegant supertuscans? At least having ten categories makes this a less arbitrary exercise than most listings.  Let’s be honest, testing the lists would only make sense with an open bottle or two. 

And the best moment of all? – a really Italian moment when Belfrage nominates his own landlord, a relatively unsung if large scale family winery, Galiga e Vetrice, as outstanding, amid the rich and famous.  Any Italian will tell you that the food in my village, the wine in my local vineyard, is categorically the best.  This is not a exercise in evaluation but an axiom.   Belfrage has a reason of course, apart from keeping in with the neighbours: the wine is made in a traditional style that has virtually passed away.  No exotic consultants, French grape varieties,  temperature controlled stainless steel, micro-oxygenation or expensive new oak here. Rather, traditional grape varieties and wine-making, then just waiting for the wine to come around, as the wines are aged for indefinite periods in large, neutral casks or glass.  He tells us that at the time of writing the 1988 was still being held in bulk … and the current vintage of Vin Santo is 1992.   And guess what, one of the  named riservas is named Nicholas Belfrage MW Selection … But all this is not just a mutual admiration society.   It’s finding these complete one-offs – surrounded by highly competent modern wine-making in recognisable styles – that continues to make Tuscany irresistible.   You could call it terroir, but really it’s a distinctiveness which is comes from the combination of people and place, expressed in the glass – il mio paese. 

 Finally, unlike Monty Waldin’s touring guide to the wines of Tuscany, this volume makes no attempt to include the good wines and the everyday  wines.  But as an introduction to the fine wines of Central Italy this is ottimo.  A glass of top Sangiovese anyone?

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Talking about wine

Most people get by without a developed language about wine.  ‘I know what I like’ is a fairly common response, with a laugh or smile, which probably means, ‘let’s face it, people drink for the pleasure, for the taste, for mild (or more) intoxication ’.  The further implication is that talking about wine is for wine buffs, sales talk or just sheer pretension.  Then there is the fear of being cheated.  ‘All wine is really the same’ – being asked to pay twice or ten times as much for some bottles is just a con, the fancy words being the cover of the cunning sales person.  Wine is difficult to evaluate in an objective way and talking about it seems to require either extraordinary tasting skills or secret knowledge.   

Thus, the challenge is, can we talk about the smell and the taste of wine in a way that will mean something to others?   

This was part of the challenge that the academic linguist Adrienne Lehrer set herself back in the early 1970s.  Do ordinary wine drinkers have a vocabulary for wine and can they communicate with one another about the qualities of individual wines? What language do wine professionals use and are they any more successful at communicating than ordinary wine drinkers? 

IMG_4138

Lehrer’s findings are fascinating.  She has now updated her book in a much expanded edition, Wine and Conversation (Oxford, 2nd edition, 2009). 

 

 

In her studies she found:

  • contrary to what was thought, ordinary people have a rich vocabulary to draw on when they speak about what wine tastes like.  Most of their vocabulary was drawn from comparison with other fields (‘spicy’, ‘green apples’)
  • professionals did better than ordinary drinkers in describing wines – whew, those wine exams were worth it!
  • professionals did no better than ordinary drinkers in talking about wines in a way that others (even other professionals) could use.  Professionals were not significantly better in experiments in which person A tasted a wine and described it, person B tried to identify that wine from a series of wines on the basis of person A’s description.  This outcome is more difficult to evaluate:  it’s a frustration that more knowledge and experience of wine does not necessarily lead to better communication … but, on the other hand, the more you know, the more you will understand and benefit from others who talk about wine knowledgeably.
  • The only exceptions to the previous finding were when a professional talked about a wine they had studied in real depth or if they were allowed to refer to colour and appearance.  Thus, real in depth knowledge and experience helps, and colour and appearance are much easier to communicate than aroma or taste.
  • There is great potential for confusion over terms such as ‘dry’ or ‘sweet’ because there is no agreed scale for these terms. The same wine can be described as sweet or dry as the speakers have different presuppositions.
  • Value judgements constantly affect drinkers’ descriptions of wine – after all, much of the time we talk about how much we do or don’t enjoy a particular wine, rather than trying to describe it.

Lehrer’s overall conclusion is heartening for those who are struggling to communicate about wine and think there is more to wine talk than sheer pretension or sales patter.  Her conclusion from her experiments was that communicating about wine via language is extremely difficult.  We have plenty of words for taste and smell, but each speaker and each hearer has a different set of educational and personal experiences against which they use and interpret those words. As a result miscommunication is rife. 

Let’s illustrate this from Angelo Gaja’s Super Tuscan Ca’ Marcanda 2005, the subject of the next post (see Two types of wine talk).   If I describe this wine as ABC – say, (A) powerful aromas of black fruit (especially blackcurrant) and  tobacco, (B) dense fruit, high acidity and young tannins in the mouth and (C ) great persistence – this will only convey something meaningful to if you and I are in broad agreement about what the sensations ABC are like.  And the likelihood of that is only quite high if we have both tasted Super Tuscans before and established some common terminology to talk about them.   The solution is obvious:  we need to taste plenty of bottles together and, while we still have our wits about us, agree on some terminology and its meaning. 

A few other comments on Lehrer’s book:

  • this is a second edition of a book which first appeared in 1983.  It’s a shame that the tasting experiments with ordinary drinkers and with professionals, which are at the heart of the book, were not rerun for this new edition.  This might have thrown some light on the general level of wine education among ordinary drinkers.  And the wines used in the experiments have mercifully passed into history under legal challenge about wine names: Californian Chablis is a blast from the past!
  • Lehrer is a linguist and the book is mainly a contribution to that subject.  That makes it a tough read for non-linguists. 
  • In this pioneering study, Lehrer does not comment on the effect of culture on all this but presupposes it. All her tasters were Americans living in three cities with the trials being conducted separately in the three places.   In effect the subjects were presumed to share the same cultural experience.  We now know that tasters from different cultures use completely different comparators for describing wine, hardly surprisingly. 
  • The author’s surveys of more recent, mainly American studies, in this field are very useful.  The important point is that the more recent studies confirm or are consistent with Lehrer’s original findings.
  • The most important strand of the recent work reported is on the basic sense of taste and smell.  It is the case that some people can taste more than others and that some have a greater ability to taste or smell some substances but not others. 

Overall, Lehrer’s work repays attention. It’s not the easiest book in the world to read but it takes us forward in the tantalising business of trying to convey the smells and the tastes of wine in speech. 

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