Sympathy for those of us paid to drink wine, never high, has hit a new low. This summer a disgruntled Californian winemaker ran a study purportedly showing that wine judges’ results were random. It was greeted in the media – like taste tests supposedly showing we can’t tell Asda bubbles from Dom Perignon – with derisive hoots of joy. And now a University of Pittsburgh study has dismissed most of the terms critics use to describe wines’ smell as meaningless.
The neuroscientists concluded there are just 10 basic scents. They say wine critics and sommeliers would do better to talk solely in terms of percentages and mixtures of those – “fruity”, “woody” and so on. Some hope. I’m not about to write, “Thirty per cent fruity and 10 per cent minty: incredible!” But finding the right words for wine is hard.
It’s partly because taste is subjective. Former TV presenter Jilly Goolden (was much mocked for her gushy references to “wet dog” and “liquorice”. Actually, I know just what she meant. I can see other drinkers might not.
Some grapes and techniques tend to make wines with obvious flavours. There’s a good chance anyone will taste blackcurrant notes in many Australian cabernet sauvignons, and oak-vanilla in the average Californian chardonnay.
Beyond that, it’s harder to agree than most professionals would admit. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov gives the example of several leading peers identifying very different flavours in the same wines. The Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth thought he detected “maduro tobacco” in all three wines in question. No one else did.
I tend to emphasise the weight, structure and overall impression of a wine. Still, if I describe it as “muscular”, or its tannins as “chewy”, will readers know what I mean? And while “farmyardy” crops up in my notes – the animal, earthy notes of some robust reds – I’ve never dared print it. This is because of the bigger problem: the towering inverted snobbery surrounding wine in this country. “Farmyardy” would be seen as “pretentious” – as indeed is anyone taking wine seriously. For this, perhaps, we can blame snobbier generations of critics and sommeliers. More likely it’s just English embarrassment about being seen to be knowledgeable about anything except sport.
Should we just embrace the most inarticulate common denominator? Virgin Wines is an egregious exemplar, its website peppered with tosh about “great” and “sassy”. I’d say those are pretentiously unpretentious terms – and meaningless, though perhaps no more so than the critics’ favourite, “smart”.
In truth, whatever the science, there is no way around wine’s inherent subjectivity. The best those who describe it for a living can do is to be precise about how wines taste to them: better that than insult their readers’ intelligence. And anyone who thinks that’s pretentious is talking… well, farmyardy.
Andrew Neather is the London Evening Standard’s comment editor and wine critic