Melvyn Minnaar: For and against verbose tasting notes

By , 4 August 2021

Horace and friends.

When it comes to those testing notes called ‘wine descriptions’ or ‘judges’ comments’ the great Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (in the English world given short-shrift as ‘Horace’) may well have had some advice. His instruction to writers in his famous Ars Poetica – the basis of all literary criticism – can be summed up as “Keep it simple and cut to the chase.”

Dear Horatius (65 – 8 BC) is also the instigator of that awesome, aggravating phrase “… professis purpureus …” (“professing to purple”). As in all Latin, the meaning meanders in translation but it more or less advises authors not to tip their prose pens into colourful ink and overdo it. Ever since Horatius’ gentle advice the label ‘purple prose’ has been a red flag for critical readers and judges.  

In the heyday of formal literary criticism (I’m from the era, a few decades ago, when Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature reigned supreme) ‘purple prose’ was hunted high and low. A no-no: too many and outrageous adjectives, outlandish metaphors and trampoline turns of show-off phrases.

But now we are in the era of anything but thinking and ‘close-reading’ (another beloved phrase of that era). Instant messaging is what it is all about. So, hello, a great comeback for purple prose and its acquaintances. Let’s say today’s purple prose is a little like populist propaganda. And now I’m talking about wine words.

These operate, if that is the right word, on back labels and in wine judge and commentators’ notes for publication.

Michael Fridjhon, esteemed man of taste, recently in a Business Day column, threw out the philosophical question whether purple prose is perhaps not a distraction (to put it mildly) in promoting the virtues of a wine. In this argument, one suspects, he is a solid supporter of Dear Horatius, not to mention Wellek and Warren who argued that in great writing “the prime and chief function is fidelity to its own nature”.

Could purple prose in back-label copy and tasting notes be disloyal to or dishonest about the wine inside?

To a close-reading cynic like me the idea of a wine producer telling me what to taste, how to experience and what to make of his/her wine puts up a red flag. What, if a rather ordinary person who rather likes wine hadn’t tasted crème de cassis before when told that this is cabernet sauvignon’s raison d’être? A bit embarrassing, n’est pas? Customer demeaning?

What to make of something like this:

“This wine cascades enigmatic tonal flashes of pastoral purple, bestowing to taste charged aromatics of sunny seasonal red, blue and black berries, autumnal cherries, heirloom violets, sharpened old-school pencil and a whiff of a treasured cigar box. There is a fresh, lively sea air quality in harmony with heady notes of All Sorts, star anise, fennel and a mélange of Eastern spice counter smells. The palate is round bodied, vigorous and malleable, but takes its time to unveil a foundation of juicy, soft pebbly tannins, with robust, unyielding flavour of the premium grape and an extended, appealingly dry grip, supported by blackcurrant comfit, black fruit mousse, cocktail cherries and a trace of crushed curry-leaf.”

Quite fun, I thought. The wine has a lot to answer for. (I made it up.)

But is wine purple prose so awful? Does it matter if it does sell the wine?

Purple prose, meaning all those delightful coins of phrase and clunky metaphors in my ‘note’, are quite likeable in some quarters. Especially, as I indicated, in our super-fast communication marketing environment. Colourful can steal the show.

Not sure how a wine can ‘cascade’ or what ‘pastoral purple’ might look like or exactly what a ‘dry grip’ feels like, but, I suppose, it does draw attention. After all, Horace was also known to love what he called the dulce et utile in the art of poetry. Yes, the sweet and the useful. Why not?

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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