Telling your whines apart

Long-winded gobbledegook, or learned deliberations? In this week's Beverage Report special Richard Ehrlich goes undercover and puts wine- tasting talk to the test with some sobering results
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There are two opposing views of the language used to describe the smell and taste of wine. One is that descriptive terms (or "descriptors" as they're known in the trade) enable us to capture precisely the evanescent impressions made by a particular drink on their sensory organs. Moreover, the exercise is based on physical realities: grapes are a fruit, grown on a plant. Since some of their flavour-forming compounds are found elsewhere in nature, expert tasters can detect the similarities.

Here's the other view: detailed descriptions of wine are grade-A, un-adulterated horseshit. They are futile attempts to pigeonhole something that cannot be described in words. Wine's elusive effects on nose, palate and throat are perceived differently by different people, and writers who think they can capture those sensations are fooling themselves.

My own view falls somewhere in between the two extremes. On one hand, it's easy to dismiss wine-speak as a unique form of snobbism. James Thurber expressed this view in a famous cartoon: "It's a naive, domestic Burgundy without any breeding," says wine-snob to companion, "but I think you'll be amused by its presumption."

But that's too easy a joke. First of all, we need some descriptive terminology if we're to move beyond saying that a wine is red/white, dry/sweet, and good/ bad/revolting. Second, certain descriptors ring bells for most drinkers. A standard description of Gewurztraminer, for instance, compares it to lychees; makes sense to me. The same applies to gooseberry for Sauvignon Blanc and peppery for certain Rhone reds.

But what about the hazelnuts? The treacle tart and quince and jam? The candied ginger and passion fruit and unripe apricots? Are these for real, or just fanciful imaginings? One wine journalist, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is convinced that some wine-writers just make it up.

"You've got to write something, so you conjure up these strange tastes - ugli fruit, or a sumo wrestler's jockstrap - out of thin air. It can be very entertaining, but it's not helpful. And I think it puts readers off. They want the general area, oak, body, where's it from, is it tannic, and then a recommendation."

Can ordinary mortals keep up with the pros when they leap into the metaphoric abyss? To find out, I conducted a tasting of five wines. There were supposed to be six, but one didn't arrive in time - about which more later.

My intrepid team had the following brief. First they were to blind-taste each wine and write their own description, using whatever terminology they find useful. Then, after finishing their notes, they were to look over tasting notes for each wine, four from leading drinks writers and one from the producer, and see if they could tell which wine went with which description. To make things more interesting, I hadn't explained my objectives: I wanted them to think they were there to slurp and evaluate.

The notes were chosen to cover a reasonable spectrum of describing styles. My panel, a nicely mixed bunch, consisted entirely of Independent on Sunday readers who answered my plea (published late last year) for tasting volunteers. They were: Stephen Cake, age 37; Alison Cake, 31; Dr Robert Asher, 49; Beate Hemmel, 36; Catherine Nalty, 37. Their professions included GP, PA, and Tax Inspector, and they turned up for a Saturday morning session at Bibendum wine merchants in Regents Park Road, London. As an added bonus, I was able to rope in one of Bibendum's staff, Paul Williams, to provide professional expertise.

My panel did their first tasting with impressive seriousness. They took their time and thought about what they were doing. At the end of phase one, the most striking point to emerge was that no-one really loved any of the wines. They felt lukewarm about most and positively livid about others. Which can happen in any wine tasting, but remember: these wines had (with one exception) been recommended by journalists. Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial champagne, for which tasting notes came from the producer, elicited sincere under-appreciation.

On the descriptive side, hardly anyone used terms similar to those of the professionals whose notes that I'd plundered. Most tended towards brevity, and the most prolix (Robert) devoted the extra wordage to guessing regions and grapes. There was hardly a metaphor in sight, and certainly no exotic fruits or baked goods. Several tasters used the term "honeyed", though never - I noted gleefully - for the same wines.

When I explained the real reason they were there, they tasted again and read the experts' notes. And surprisingly, even though no one had used the same terms to describe any single wine, they did pretty well at matching wines to descriptions. The only red wine may have been given away by a single noun (loganberries, which are red). But the others were all white, and my tasters got half of them right. The two that they confused were the Chablis and the Spanish Sauvignon Blanc, which were both light, steely and with no pronounced character, and the wine writers' descriptions didn't go overboard in the figures-of-speech department.

Then I revealed the identities. The panel was not amused: of our five describers, only Oz Clarke won general approval for his rendition of an Aus-tralian Grenache. Some of his language raised eyebrows, but everyone liked the wine he'd recommended - though they thought it overpriced (I agreed). Jane Macquitty's summary of the Chablis avoided adjectival excess, but the wine was judged a dud. Alison called it: "very light, with a rather watery taste."

There was a mixed reaction to Malcolm "Superplonk" Gluck's account of a Spanish Sauvignon Blanc. Or, more precisely, there was a mixed reaction to Mr Gluck in general: this wine was universally loathed and, on tasting it myself, I could see why. Beate said that Gluck's description was simply "not helpful". Stephen felt disappointed: "on the basis of this recommendation, he may have just lost a reader." But both said that they enjoyed reading him, even if they would be careful of his recommendations. Alison said that if she bought the wine after reading his description, she'd wonder if she had picked up the right bottle. Catherine would have taken it back for a refund.

Similarly low marks went to the Moet notes and those of Paul Levy. Robert said to Moet's description: "I can imagine a classy drink that would fit their description, but this isn't it." No-one liked the wine on first tasting it, most thought it was a New World sparkler.

Paul Levy's laying-on of fruits was even less popular. Catherine said, "he makes it sound like Lilt." Stephen said the description made him ask, "what sort of wine would this possibly be?" And Alison said, "I would have guessed that this was a piss-take." On the other hand, they did like the wine.

To finish the session I pulled out a final bit of torment for my guinea pigs. Three tasting notes (see box, right) were printed on a sheet, two of them from journalists. The third came from my own imagination and had no reference to any wine drunk by man. I asked them to see if they could spot the fake. Almost everyone did. Can you spot the fake?

A few general reactions came out of our tasting. One was a feeling of acute ennui when faced with an avalanche of adjectives. Wine descriptors may have their uses, but genuinely helpful advice is not among them.

The panel also developed a fuller appreciation of the difficulty of wine-tasting. As Paul Williams put it, "it's hard to have a true tasting note. We could all taste the same wine and get completely different fruits from it." Robert agreed: "everyone's experience of tasting is a deeply personal thing. With friends it tends to be `great, fantastic, okay, send it back' - general terms."

From the point of view of naked self-interest, the tasting filled me with dread. Duff recommendations do not win friends. Stephen emphasised the importance of building up a long-term relationship with a wine writer, and thought that trust wouldn't survive too many let-downs. "Three strikes and you're out," he said. My nameless wine-writing source agrees: "The ultimate test is whether people like the wine."

This seems a perfectly fair standard, and no wine writer can be all things to all readers. If my palate and yours don't agree, go elsewhere for guidance. And, by the way, I welcome advice on what kind of wine recommendations you enjoy most. Adjectives by the dozen, or short, straightforward assessment of quality and VFM?

Incidentally, the wine that didn't show up in time was one that Jilly Goolden had recommended on the Food and Drink programme. The supplier told me that when Ms G gushes about a wine, the nation heads out to buy every available bottle. "Do you like her tasting note?" I asked my panel. An embarrassed silence fell, followed by words like "ridiculous". But it's probably not the details that make people rush out to buy; it's the mere fact of her enthusiasm. Could she have caused gridlock at the checkouts by comparing the wine to rubber gloves, linseed oil, and Chanel No 5 on a Gladiator's shorts?

We'll never know.


Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial (widely available, around pounds 20) Remarkable aromas of great finesse, creamy and biscuity as well as showing hints of brioche with overtones of honey and vine blossom. The palate shows good depth and concentration of dried fruit, cinnamon and vanilla flavours. The wine is clean, mature and lively with a stylish dry finish.

Moet's own tasting notes

Chablis 1995, Henri Lambert (Majestic, pounds 5.99) Full of refined, steely, floral, herbaceous scents and flavours, this greeny-gold classic French white closes with a clean, nutty, leafy finish.

Jane Macquitty, `Times Magazine'

Aldara Reserve Grenache 1994, (Waitrose, pounds 5.99) A fruit like deep, red loganberries. It's as though I'm actually crushing the black grapes in my mouth. There's a rasp there, but it's a rasp of liquorice and herbs. And there's a little bit of acidity that comes back just to make my mouth water at the end.

Oz Clarke, `Food and Drink'

Carta Vieja Vino Blanco 1996, (Majestic, pounds 3.99) A Chilean white of complexity, pace, richness and finesse. An utterly delicious Sauvignon with a cleanness of fruit - counterpointed by a subtle melony flavour and undercut by crisp, gently herbaceous acidity ...

Malcolm Gluck, `Guardian'

Pendarves Verdelho 1995, (Stockists info: 01780 755810) Delicious spicy citrus and tropical fruit-scented white with appley overtones, plus the flavours of melon, pineapple and passion fruit.

Paul Levy, `Mail on Sunday'

Cabernet/Shiraz Southeastern Austra-lia, non-vintage, (Tesco, pounds 3.99) It's intense, it's heady, it's like hot Bakewell tart. Like fairy cakes just taken out of the oven - that lovely, lovely, hauntingly sort of sweet fruity taste with a little lactic, pastry edge to it. And it's also got, of course, blackcurrant pastilles. You don't get this kind of wine without that lovely, squashy blackcurrant pastille scent.

Jilly Goolden, `Food and Drink'