The Telegraph—a London-based newspaper owned by David and Frederick Barclay—has published a sort of strange piece written by Jasper Copping suggesting that the average wine consumer is ‘baffled’ by the descriptors we stiff-necked, too-big-for-our-smarty-pants wine writers use to describe various wine qualities, and sagely points out that consumers are even more confused if we happen to be be writing in Xhosa, the Bantu ‘click’ language.
This is but a single chapter in his larger, Pulitzer-worthy series ‘Competitive Ignorance’ that does an in-depth study of consumer bafflement at technical terminology used in various professions, including neuroscience, observational astrophysics, linguistic psychology specializing in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis and Bantu bat baiting.
Turns out that the ‘Q’ in John Q. Public may not stand for ‘quick on the uptake’ after all.
Copping lists several descriptions that Johnny Lunchbucket find particularly irksome, although in fact, in my two decades of wine writing, I have never once encountered any of them—terms that, frankly, baffle me too: ‘Firm skeleton’, ‘old bones’ and ‘tongue spanking.’
But others are in common use, of course, by me as well as my colleagues-in-arms and Barclay claims that in the survey, a high percentage of wine drinkers were mystified by phrases like ‘leathery’, ‘wet stone’ and ‘minerality’. Had I an opportunity to lead these confused, confounded consumers gently toward a Funk & Wagnalls, I should have pointed out that in wine reviews, ‘leathery’ can be translated as ‘having the olfactory qualities of leather’, and that ‘wet stone’ means ‘having the olfactory qualities of wet stone’ and that minerality can be seen as ‘having the olfactory qualities of not-wet stone’.
Apparently, the terms that Everyman (and Everywoman, evidently) found most useful are ‘fresh’, ‘zesty’ and ‘peachy’. See, to me, these are Madison Avenue buzzwords, and not wine descriptions—even ‘peachy’, which I assume means ‘having the olfactory qualities of a peach’. That said, why ‘peachy’ is a concept more graspable than ‘leathery’ I leave to my betters, unless of course these mystified masses are drinking a steady regimen of Annie Green Springs Peach Crisp, which granted, rarely shows notes of saddle leather.
But, to the larger question: Is Copping suggesting that critics dumb-down tasting notes to avoid making John and Jane Simple-Tastes uncomfortable? Everything reduced to sunshine and lollipops, cherry and peach? In the first place, I will guarantee that for every ‘wet stone’ you’ll find in your typical critique, there will be a three or four fruit descriptors alongside it—unless, of course, the wine has no fruit left due to age or mismanagement.
As baffling as some of these terms are to those less interested in chemistry than in self-medication, many of the more subtle flavors that professionals pull from a glass of wine are non-subjective. Butteriness, for example, is the result of the formation of diacetyl during secondary, or malolactic fermentation—diacetyl is the same compound that food chemists add to margarine to make it taste like butter. Vanilla notes come from vanillic acid found in oak barrels, and when these barrels are toasted, the natural sugars in the oak sap caramelize, imparting the taste of coffee, cocoa and similar ‘roasted’ flavors to the wine.
Humans can taste or smell about 1800 individual flavors, and of these, grapes—among the most complex tasting foods in the world—contain 1100 of them. They include the identical compounds that make an apple taste like an apple or a pineapple a pineapple—and yes, a peach a peach. And as grapes ripen, these flavors change on a molecular level: There are a lot of citrus notes in young grapes, apple and pear in middle age, apricot and peach later on, and when fully—or even overly ripe—pineapple and coconut. During harvest, grapes of all these levels will likely wind up in the primary fermenter, so chances are, an experienced taster may pick up on many of the subtle, individual flavors that appear in various stages of ripeness.
The ‘darker’ notes that supposedly baffle the benighted may be related to small doses of brettanomyces, or brett—a strain of yeast that can appear in a wine before or after bottling. In large doses, it is a wine—and sometimes winery—killer, but at smaller levels it may lend the kind of complexity to wine that has Jasper Copping’s test subjects scratching their heads. Barnyard, bacon fat, smoke, and most notably leather, may all be signs of a brett infection.
The point is, wine tasting notes may not necessarily be written to help a Piggly Wiggly shelf shopper know (as Copping writes) ‘what the wine tastes like’ any more than ‘oil on a poplar wood panel with the subject centered in a pyramid design as a modification of the classic Seated Madonna’ would help a hayseed from Hattiesburg understand what the Mona Lisa looks like.
But both could—learning to appreciate wine as a fine art as intense and marvelous as any other is a complicated process that requires practice, desire and resulting dedication. There is a canonical maxim in psychology that says, ‘It may be stating the obvious, but it may not be obvious until it is stated.’ I can’t tell you how many novice, but earnest wine drinkers I have asked to identify what specific fruit they experience in glass of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and they’ve replied—pun intended—that the elusive flavor is on ‘the tip of their tongue’, but just beyond their current reach and taste-associative expertise. When I suggest, ‘Pink grapefruit?’, it’s all knee-slapping and ‘Day-um! That’s it!’
Next time, they will know what to look for.
Rather than sit around being baffled, I suggest that you puzzled proles actually think about terms like wet stone, leather and minerals when you pop the cork on a wine thus characterized, and not so much the zesty and fresh.
And if you couldn’t care less? Bollocks to all y’all in that case: Let us highbrow upstart parvenu writers stick to our guns and you can finish off the Peach Crisp.