A while back, I wrote a piece about the launch of a particular wine and got a response that read: “Yes, but what did it taste like?” I had neglected to include a tasting note and was duly taken to task. Fact is, I hate writing tasting notes.
Our vocabulary of taste descriptors is severely limited, which makes it difficult to be specific regarding flavours. For instance, making the distinction between one type of berry and the next can only ever be an approximation. When does strawberry become raspberry become mulberry?
Nevertheless, it’s how I earn a living and I have an obligation to our readers. So how to make sense of it all? I think wine writing occurs on three different levels. The first is literal which requires you to be a competent taster, and there are plenty of those who are better than me at discerning between the different types of berries as expressed in a glass of wine.
Then there’s metaphorical, which requires you to be both a competent taster and an imaginative writer. Take, for instance, UK wine writer Andrew Jefford’s description of the Latour 2003: “(It) arrives like a freight train out of the darkness: sudden, huge, earth-shakingly weighty and improbably long”. Impossible to top…
The third manner of wine writing is analytical, which requires the writer to comment on wine in a socio-economic and perhaps philosophical context, and this is largely how I ply my trade. By way of example, I find it fascinating to observe captains of industry who, once they have tamed the stock market, think that a wine of excellence is instantly attainable . . .
But back to tasting notes . . . When it comes to trying to describe what’s in the bottle a lot of what’s written is either alienating or pretentious, but conversely I am often confounded by how deliberately unco-operative the wine novice can be when it comes to analysing what’s in the glass.
Let’s start with the basics. “Complex” is opposed to “simple” and, as Crozes-Hermitage producer Alain Graillot said to me, “drinkable” is not a particularly elegant or profound formulation, but we all know what it means. There are some wines, however impressive, that you don’t want a second glass of . . .
Describing a wine as having red as opposed to black or dark fruit is some indication of the relative ripeness at which the constituent grapes where picked: as grapes move from green to optimally ripe to raisined or dead, the flavours they exhibit change accordingly and it’s up to the individual winemaker to make a judgement call concerning when to harvest. With current obsession for fruitier style wines, grapes tend to be picked later and therefore display more dark than red fruit.
Some might say that describing a wine as “juicy” is not particularly helpful, in the sense that grapes are juicy by virtue of being a fruit and that all fruit is inherently juicy. However, grapes can be dried-out if not picked early enough and hence the problem with so many of today’s wines that display a desiccated character and lack refreshment.
Unless you’re Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson, earning a salary out of wine writing is a mug’s game. Nevertheless, you find affirmation in the strangest places. In the 7 June issue of Time magazine this year, readers were invited to put questions to acclaimed author Ian McEwan, and it was asked of him what he thought about there being a decreasing amount of literary reviews in newspapers and magazines.
He replied: “The problem is really a small part of a larger one, which is the decline of newspapers. Publishers seem to be very keyed up to embrace the Internet, but I don’t have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgement. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.”