What We Talk About When We Talk About Wine

This New Yorker piece by the writer Bianca Bosker raises some interesting and important questions about how wine tasting notes are written, and the general vocabulary used to discuss wine. Bosker’s research shows that it’s basically impossible to objectively describe a wine’s taste, because words like “minerality” are debatable in a scientific sense (although I personally find it very useful, and I can tell you with one sip whether a wine shows minerality), and because descriptors, like all linguistic artifacts, are culturally-shaped and can change over time (as is the case with wine, of course).

But there’s something else to look at when talking about wine that I feel strongly about. Much as the Parker rating system has been called into question in professional circles, wine descriptors that focus on tasting notes should also be deemphasized. While it’s important, for a consumer who is interested in purchasing a bottle he’s never had, to have some knowledge of how a wine tastes, if we focus on adjectives then we risk losing the story behind the wine. By which I mean: who are the people responsible for the bottle in question; what is their philosophy toward working the land and the grapes; what do they do in the cellar that’s unique; what is their terroir and how does it speak through the wine? I know that sommeliers care about these things, but from my experiences selling wine in retail, and teaching introductory wine classes, I have seen that most people are not considering the fact that wine is an agricultural product (notice the cultural in agricultural) made by people, and it therefore carries history, politics, and everything that goes into culture.

That’s why, when we talk about wine, in my opinion it’s important to say a few words about the taste, but only insofar as it tells you what situation the wine should be drunk in. Example: I really love a high-acid Côt (that’s the French name for Malbec) made by Vincent Caillé in the Loire Valley; I would never bother listing all the “fruits” I taste in that wine, but I would always mention that it’s high-acid (or, bright, a synonym) because people need to know that this is a versatile food wine, ideal for light meats or pasta dishes, rather than a wine for sipping alone. I would also say that it is light, and stainless-steel aged, and therefore crisp–so you know it might not be a steak wine. In fact, this wine would work nicely with shrimp or clams, it’s so light and fresh.

More broadly speaking, though, what I’d like to see is more average consumers learning to ask the same questions about wine that they pose about food. Such as, what farming practices were used? If not completely organic, then why? Because the estate is too large to attempt organic growing, or because of the climate? That’s a pretty basic question that anyone can discuss, without getting into slightly more complicated subjects such as whether sulfur was used as a preservative.

A really great source for learning more about winemakers and winemaking culture in general is the Wine Terroirs blog, which is mainly focused on France. And it’s what I aim to do with my own wine writing! For example: my recent-ish piece on the new wave of Spanish natural wine, for Saveur. OK, considering that this subject deserves a book rather than a blog post, I think I’ll leave it there for now.

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