Words matter – but which ones?

Getty Images Buca Photography magazine words collage

Why not diversity in tasting notes too? A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

In the space of a couple of weeks, the JancisRobinson.com editorial inbox received three emails on the subject of tasting notes. One reader said, ‘I’m a great fan of JR and the website but, whilst I’m certainly not questioning her palate, Tamlyn has to be taking the mickey out of us with some of her tasting notes in the champagne article.’ He was particularly offended by the way I described a wine’s acidity by its shape.

One reader (a Master of Wine and Switzerland-based wine retailer) wrote: ‘On another note – I am assuming you are Tamlyn Currin? I just wanted to say that I think your tasting notes are superb! You are my favourite tasting note writer of the past 2 years – great imagination and descriptions!’

The third email said, ‘Just a comment and pet peeve. why do the reviewers seem to need to put every fruit in their descriptions? what they smell maybe a reader does not nor even know the fruit in question. I ask them. Does that fruit smell like the wine? Ive cancelled all my american anything as they have gone off the deep end. Graham Crackers? the one that kills me is violets. their smell is fleeting , there one sec gone the next. wonder what they really are smelling. oh i know! grapes ripened and made into wine.’

Tasting notes, or wine reviews, are as controversial as wine scores within the microcosm of the wine world. While the arguments for and against scoring, and scoring systems, are well worn, well published and entrenched in the echo chambers of the oeno-cosmos, the conflict around the language we use to describe wine is more of a war by stealth.

I don’t use the words conflict and war lightly. People love to take pot-shots at the way other people describe wine. For years, I’ve watched this happen, not only in wine-related chatrooms and forums and across dinner tables, but, more distressingly, in books and articles, digital and print, written by professionals. Some of these criticisms are subtle, but many are undisguised attacks on fellow wine writers, always from a position of condescending or contemptuous superiority. Devaluing another person’s experience or understanding of a wine has become a socially acceptable blood sport.

Entire books have been written and courses (such as the WSET) have been designed to teach us how to taste and how to communicate what we taste. The format, common to most of these educational systems, is almost always rigid, prescriptive, pedantic and comes with a tacit understanding that there is a wrong and a right when it comes to tasting, understanding, experiencing, judging and communicating about wine.

It’s useful, especially for novices. But scientific research has shown, over and over, that wine tasting is a uniquely individual experience, based not only on our knowledge, experience and training in wine tasting but also on myriad complex environmental, social, cultural, neurological, anatomical, physiological and psychological factors. The simple truth, which many wine experts prefer to ignore, is that there is no such thing as pure objectivity when it comes to reviewing wine. This, then, means that, whatever the firmly held assumptions are, there is no such thing as a right or wrong way to communicate about wine.

The highly methodical, standardised system used by WSET students, Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine is valuable as a learning tool and brings discipline to the process of tasting. It is also a key communication tool with examiners, fellow students, lab technicians, wine buyers and producers seeking a particular profile of wine. But as a way of communicating about wine with the outside world, which is primarily the task of persuading (or dissuading) someone about a wine, it’s not particularly useful. Perhaps as enthralling as reading an invoice. (If you’re into analytics or love accounting, however, you might find this quite fun.)

Most people write tasting notes in a much looser fashion, broadly following the pattern of describing appearance, aroma, fruit, acidity and tannins, but with more narrative, often more adjectives. Although these adjectives come from a fairly narrow range that conforms to broadly accepted groups of fruit, flowers, spices and herbs, with a few other descriptors such as chocolate, bread, nuts or smoke ‘allowed’. Criticism often arises if these descriptions veer beyond the ‘allowed’ terms or if there are too many adjectives. ‘Flowery’ or ‘florid’ or ‘gushing’ are favourite terms of derision for those who break the unwritten rules.

Then there are people who take the mickey. Using metaphors of shape, colour, texture, sound, place, experience and then bending those metaphors into stories, they find other ways to describe wines that take you to emotion and memory.

My first lesson in metaphor came from Jancis, who told me more than 15 years ago that it is more important to describe the shape of the wine in your mouth than to list flavours. Back in the days when I transcribed her tasting notes from her hieroglyphically cryptic handwriting and shorthand, I found myself typing a tasting note written in 2004 for a 1976 Mosel. It said: ‘piano teacher” (my shorthand for a smell of macerated raisins and very slightly musty velours)’. I had a piano teacher. She was 75 and parchment thin, very strict, always disapproving (I didn’t practise my scales). My fingers were rapped with a ruler on a regular basis. The house smelt of potpourri and mustiness. She had a straight spine, was very proper. I never slouched in her presence. Put musty piano teacher in a tasting note, I know exactly where I am with that wine. The queen of academically correct, exquisitely succinct wine prose is also the queen of metaphor.

The American wine importer and writer by the name of Terry Theise wrote a book, Reading Between The Wines. His prose – controversially and contradictorily both erudite and raw, sexual and prim, precise and verbose – is captivating. His tasting notes take me to the dictionary, to Wonderland, to thin places. About the variety Scheurebe he wrote, ‘Riesling just after it read the Kama Sutra… Scheu is what Riesling would be if Riesling were a transvestite… blatantly flirtatious.’ If you taste a glass of Scheu, before or after reading that, I can promise you that you will always, always recognise Scheurebe, even blind. You will never taste a Scheurebe again without a naughty smile flitting across your face. I dare you. But it’s pure metaphor.

Victoria Moore, in describing Sangiovese, writes, ‘where Merlot is smooth, as if it’s been smoothed in and grouted up, Sangiovese has texture, like the crenelations of the battlements found all over Tuscany’. If you’ve ever had a glass of Tuscan Merlot and Tuscan Sangiovese side by side, you will know exactly what she means. Your mouth is watering. But it’s all metaphor.

Master of Wine Nick Jackson wrote a ground-breaking book (that not everyone liked) based on his experience in learning to identify wine blind, not through the tried and tested matrices of BLIC (balance, length, intensity, complexity) but through the perceived shape of the wine in the mouth based on acidity. Conventional wine-tasting training teaches you to measure acidity of a wine as high, medium or low. It was both revelation and liberation for me, who tastes in a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional universe, to finally come across someone who identified Albariño as cuboid and Chardonnay as cylindrical. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Andrew Jefford, musing on the differences between Barbaresco and Barolo, writes, ‘You might, thus, expect a louder beat, and not a softer one’ and, also about Barbaresco, he tells the reader: ‘you taste drama and dust and bitterness as the wine turns to liquid rags in your mouth, and sails off with an angry asperity’. When writing about 2010 Mas del Serral made by Pepe Raventós, he takes his readers on an imagined journey out of the city to a farm where he begins to describe a painting starting to take form in front of their eyes. In trying to convey what the wine tastes like, he tells the reader to see ‘a scene as intricately constructed as a watch’. ‘This sparkling wine’, he writes, ‘is the cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos: a honeycomb of light, chased about by dragons, centaurs and mermaids imagined by lost stone carvers.’ That’s quite a metaphor.

Professor Mary Hesse said, ‘It is still unfortunately necessary to argue that metaphor is more than a decorative literary device and that it has cognitive implications whose nature is a proper subject of philosophic discussion.’

This is not to put storytelling and metaphor above all else, but to argue for its value and relevance in the context of wine communication. I have a vested interest and motive, one could argue. The way I write about wine is sometimes so extremely metaphorical that my editors protest, their heads in their hands. A tasting note I wrote for a Roussillon wine goes, ‘Put your old leather boots on – the ones that feel like second skin, that you've loved for years. Pick up that hip flask filled with damson wine. There's a punnet of ripe cherries on the kitchen table – put them in your backpack. Slam the back door behind you, grab the strong hand of the person you love most, stride out into the cold winter wind feeling the rough stones of the dirt track below your feet and start walking towards that rugged peak etched against a wide sky. Smell the scent of dry winter garrigue, feel the burn of muscle and your heart pounding as you begin to climb, the earth falling away beneath you. Get to the top, find a rock, turn your face into the cut of the wind, open that hip flask, bite into a cherry, feel the juice running down your chin, and laugh. That is this wine.’

I know. There are no cherries in winter. But this is metaphor.

I believe in the power of metaphor. Storytelling is one of the oldest mechanisms of metaphor and one of the most powerful, age-old media of communication in every corner of the globe. From time immemorial, humans have sat around their (real and metaphorical) fires and told stories: to teach cultural etiquette, to inspire, to castigate, to build vision, create loyalty, embed values. These may have been myths and legends about gods, ancestors and spirits, and they may or may not have been true or rooted in fact, but the ‘actuality’ of them was not what mattered. The spirit of them was intended to resonate with the spirit of the listener, and in doing so, pass the baton of tribal truth from one person, one generation to another.

More than anything else, I believe in the power, the place, and the fundamental requisite of diversity. We allow diversity of literary styles, of music styles, of art. Why not the way we describe a wine? Diversity underpins the resilience of a thing. Diversity gives everyone a voice and allows everyone to listen. The celebration of diversity, and putting diversity at the heart of a thing, is what breaks down division and opens up communication. I appreciate that not everyone is comfortable with tasting notes in metaphorical form. By the same token, not everyone relates to a wine described by its detectable volatile compounds, acidity levels and measurable dry extract. The importance of diversity is that, as with jazz, pop, classical and folk, everyone can find the medium they are most comfortable with. Perhaps I don’t write about wines in the way my fellow wine writer does, but with our different voices, we can reach more people. The world is big enough for us all. It needs all our voices.

Wines that have told me stories, recently

Dom de Bosc-Long, Braucol 2017 Gaillac 13%
£15 RRP (available from Vin Cognito in September 2022)

Brookdale, Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2020 Paarl 13.5%
£29.99 Museum Wines

Contrà Soarda, Il Pendio 2018 IGT Veneto 14%
£25.95 Vin Cognito

Dom Gardiés, Les Millères 2018 Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 13.5%
£20 RRP

Dom Mee Godard, Les Michelons 2020 Morgon 14%
£27 RRP

Natte Valleij, Cinsault 2018 Stellenbosch 11.5%
£17.99 Museum Wines

Naudé, Werfdans Old Vines Cinsault 2016 Western Cape 12.5%
£39.99 Museum Wines

Enric Soler, Font-Rubí, Nun Vinya Dels Taus 2019 Penedès 13%
£46 Vin Cognito

Sugrue, Rosé Ex Machina 2016 England 12%
£59 producer's website and various independents

Tasting notes in our >220,000-strong database. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.

Credit for the photo above goes to Busà Photography via Getty Images.