Like Liquid Rags in Your Mouth

wine taster 11Hands down, this article in Financial Times by Tamlyn Currin  (who writes for Jancis Robinson) is the best thing I’ve read on the vexed topic of tasting notes. It’s behind a paywall so I will summarize it.

Currin often uses elaborate metaphors to describe a wine and prefers to focus more on the shape of the wine in her mouth rather than a list of fruits. Some of her readers complain:

One reader wrote, “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, which I perceived as four-cornered, developing into an arrow of piercing triangularity on the finish.

It seems to me this is exactly what some well-made Champagne’s feel like, and that movement from stolid to piercing is what grabs our attention and gives the wine personality. It’s a whole lot more informative than “firm acidity” or heaven forbid “medium-plus acidity.”

She complains about the “rigid, prescriptive, and pedantic” format of wine education programs with their list of allowable fruit descriptors and the implication that there is a “right” way to describe wine. While acknowledging that this is useful for novices and business communications, she argues it ignores the inherent subjectivity of wine tasting:

But scientific research has shown over and over that wine tasting is a uniquely ­individual experience, based on a myriad of complex cultural, anatomical 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. By extension, there is no such thing as a right or wrong way to write about it.

This inference is a bit fast for me. No doubt wine tasting is an individual experience but there are more or less objective elements to wind tasting as well. As I’ve written about many times the terms “subjective” and “objective” are not particularly useful because they suggest opposed categories with a bright line between them. There is no such bright line and most experiences are a complex mixture of personal and less personal judgments.

With some well curated quotes from luminaries of the wine world such as Terry Theise, Victoria Moore, and Andrew Jefford, she shows that well chosen metaphors convey much more about a wine than a list of descriptors regardless of how precise they are

Andrew Jefford writes of Barbaresco that “you taste drama and dust and bitterness as the wine turns to liquid rags in your mouth, and sails off with an angry asperity”.


And she helpfully points out that it was Master of Wine Nick Jackson, in his well received book on blind tasting, who suggested that “the perceived shape of a wine in the mouth based on acidity” is the most useful way of identifying wines in a blind tasting.

She then provides us with an example of one of her own  metaphorical romps:

A tasting note I wrote for a Roussillon reads: “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.”

She grants there are no cherries in winter but implores: “Imagine if there were.”

Wines tell stories; everyone is willing to grant that. But too often this means the story of the vintage or the story of the vineyard that supplied the grapes, or the history of the family that made the wine. But in the end what really matters is the wine in the mouth and what it expresses. That story needs to be told as well. That story will not be a literal narrative but an evocation of how wine affects the imagination.

If wine is poetry in a bottle it’s hard to capture that dimension of wine without metaphor.

We allow diversity of literary styles, of music, of art. Why not the way we describe a wine? Diversity underpins the resilience of a thing. It gives everyone a voice and opens up a closed system of communication. I appreciate that not everyone is comfortable with getting their 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 density. As with jazz, pop, classical and folk, everyone can find the style they are most comfortable with. Perhaps I don’t write about wines in the way my fellow wine writers do, but with our different voices, we can reach more people. The world is big enough for us all.

If you want to know more about the theoretical analysis that supports this view of wines’ capacity for expression, it’s all in Beauty and the Yeast.

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