Language and wine

perception language wine

I’m just preparing for this morning’s session at the International Pinot Noir Conference here in McMinnvilla, Oregon. I have to moderate the grand seminar, which will be repeated again tomorrow, with 400 delegates in each session. Our topic, on the perception of wine and the way we use language to describe it, is potentially quite academic. So the first rule is we shall not bore the audience. With eight speakers and 90 minutes, it’s going to be a tight event, which should help us all focus.

So by way of preparation, I thought I’d compose a blog post. It gathers the mind.

As we taste a wine together, is it a common experience for all of us? The unspoken assumption on the part of the wine trade, sommeliers and wine education bodies is that we do indeed share the same experience. We operate as if the taste of the wine is in the glass; that it is a property of the wine. Is this just a pragmatic assumption, in that it would be difficult for us to operate in any other way (personalized menus in restaurants?), or does it stem from a truly shared experience?

Language is the primary window into the private world of another person’s perception. Of course, we can discern something of another’s inner state by non-verbal cues, but it is language that is the window of perception. This is why the way we speak about wine is so interesting and important.

So we will be looking at the way that we use language to describe wine, and how this use has changed over time, and differs among wine cultures. We will look in different practical contexts: how does a wine critic’s use of language to describe wine differ from that of the sommelier, for example?

Which are the best ways to use language to capture the perception of wine? Should be be using reductionist approaches, breaking wine down into its component parts, or should we aim for more holistic, global language that captures the wine as a whole? Is figurative language better than literal?

To what extent is our common language of wine a learned code? Does wine education give us a vocabulary that we then apply to wine, with a poor correspondence to reality? Should we be looking for new ways to describe wine – fresh approaches with greater correspondence to what is in the glass?

What are the cognitive approaches that we use when we try to describe our experience of wine? And do experts and novices do it in a different way?

Finally, how can we do it better?

On a related subject, see this article on whether wine flavour is an objective property.

Thinking aloud about wine marketing

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I’m in an airport. It’s a place where you are bombarded by marketing messages. It’s made me think about wine marketing.

Spirit producers tend to do a lot more marketing than wine producers. It’s not the fault of wine producers: it’s just that the world of spirits is a much more branded space than that of wine.

Wine is different. Most people coming into the wine world from that of spirits or beer must shake their head in amazement. Then they set about fixing the mess that is wine marketing. Then they give up, because sooner or later they realize just how different wine is.

First of all, it’s not manufactured. It’s utterly dependent for its quality on the quality of starting product, grapes. Of course, the ingredients have to be good quality for spirits, but they don’t have anything like the impact that grape quality does. And we have the fact that wine can only be made once a year, and the quality changes every year. It’s not manufactured and it’s not scaleable.

The scale of wine production is important. Putting it simply, the bigger the producer, the harder it is to make top quality wine. [We can discuss this further.] And most wine is production driven: people make it, then they try to sell it. In a world of over-supply, they often sell it at very little profit.

What we have ended up with is a massively fragmented wine market with many thousands of players. This leads to infinite substitution in the market place: if you lose your place on a supermarket shelf, there are plenty more wines in the queue. And wine is a low margin product, despite the attempts of many retailers (for example, Laithwaites, Naked Wines, and increasingly Majestic) to operate on a high margin model.

There’s also the almost deliberate confusion of soft brands in the retail space. These are wines bottled to look like branded product but with labels and names made up by the retailer or wholesaler. These began for restaurants: the on-trade (with the exception of high-end restaurants) want to hide their mark-ups, so they insist on exclusivity, hence restaurant-only labels. Now retailers are moving more in the direction of soft brands for their trade drivers: wines with a made-up label that are bought for the same price as a £5 retail wine but which are listed at £8 or £10 with a view to promotional deep discounting.

The most profitable wine business in the UK, Laithwaites, has built their business on soft brands and high-margins. This has allowed them to spend lots of money on customer acquisition and marketing. Naked Wines have a similar business model: soft brands, high margin, and discount-driven sales that are not eating into this margin too much. And Majestic seem to be moving in the high margin direction, where a large portion of their range is on promotion at any one point in time: buy at the regular price and they look a bit expensive, but buy on promotion and their pricing is attractive. The thing is, when you buy on promotion, the supplier is forced to take a hit, which works very well for the retailer. Tesco’s model also seems to be going in a high margin direction. Their range is increasingly dominated by private label wines, which takes one margin out of the equation and prevents any price comparison. The Tesco Finest range all seem to be a pound or two more expensive than they should be: as with other high-margin retailers, they hope their smart buying and winemaking/blending input means that they can get away with the mark-ups. As with some other supermarkets, they run periodic 25% off deals across their range, so margins need to be decent to accommodate this (and for branded products, the brand owners will take a hit during these promotions).

All these retailers work on the basis of revolving promotions and infinite substitution. They are getting customers hooked on the deal, and not the specific brands. There are relatively few wine brands with much traction, because brand owners don’t have the money to promote and market their brands to normal people in the way that spirit brand owners do.

The interesting development is the rise of the discounters, Aldi and Lidl. Rather than go down the high margin/soft brand route, they are low margin, and don’t do price promotion. Aldi’s range is compact but well sourced, and if you taste their wines alongside similarly priced products from major supermarkets, then there’s little contest. They are paying quite a bit more for similarly priced wines. And this September, Lidl is set to roll out a major wine offering, at very keen prices.

When it comes to marketing, wine really is different, and I can’t see this changing soon. It will continue to be a confusing, bewildering, complex, annoying and utterly wonderful category!

Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2012

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So, Noval has done another ‘eccentric’ declaration, this time of the 2012, and it’s quite early, too. Christian Seely announced the declaration on his blog, earlier this month. His logic – if the Port is good enough, it will be a Vintage declaration, even if it means that selection results in smaller volumes being released. Just 1000 cases were bottled. Also, it’s worth noting that it’s not just about wine quality. Christian also takes into account whether or not the wine is in the style of Noval Vintage Port. This seems very sensible. So, the Port itself: it’s pretty good. Certainly worthy of a declaration.

Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2012 Douro, Portugal
19.5% alcohol. Vivid aromatic nose of pure black cherry and blackberry fruit, with lovely purity and some floral overtones. Quite classic. Concentrated, dark palate with ripe spicy black fruits and notes of chocolate, plums, cedar, olive and tar. Great purity of fruit and nice density. Should age beautifully in a linear direction. 94/100

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Comments on Bruce Palling's anti-natural wine article

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Bruce Palling’s article on natural wine has been the subject of a lot of debate over the last week or so.

I’ve read it twice. Three times if you count the abbreviated version that appeared in the New Statesman. He writes well, and he makes some valid points. But…

The ‘but’ is because I think he’s actually wrong. He’s wrong because of his perspective. From where he’s standing, it’s all rather alarming.

Concerning natural wine, he states:

Its not exactly true to say people don’t talk about it, but there is a tendency amongst serious wine writers to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it they believe to be undrinkable rubbish.

Palling loves classic fine wines. He mentions a number of them fondly. But he’s distressed when he goes to restaurants whose wine lists are predominantly natural. He feels he is being forced to drink wines that he doesn’t like. From the Palling perspective, natural wine is cultish, and is a fad. Its time is passing, and soon we’ll all be returning to the old classics, that we know and love.

From my perspective, as a wine journalist, I see natural wine in a very different light. Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’, because that’s a sideshow. This new wave of natural wines is a vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting, and which connects with a lot of punters. Go to RAW or the Real Wine Fair, and you see people engaging with wine.

Among wine journalists, natural wine divides them into two groups. There are the more traditional, who – like Palling – are distressed by natural wines and (usually without having tasted all that many) trot out the mantra that they are all faulty and that the emperor is naked. They find it personally upsetting that people can enjoy wines that they don’t, and they seem to regard themselves as the defenders of taste in the realm of fine wine.

Then there are those who have an open mind; who are curious about new flavours; and who actually bother to spend time with these wines and the people who make them. You don’t have to be a true believer to like natural wines; nor do you have to dismiss non-natural wines if you are to enjoy those that are naturally made. After all, who decides what is ‘fine wine’?

The natural wine movement has been good for all wine, I reckon. As I said recently, it’s important that it doesn’t become a closed-off niche, and that there’s some open-mindedness on all sides. Because some natural wines are truly great, in my opinion, and to ignore these because our palates are afraid of new flavours seems a bit sad.

In short, Palling’s perspective is that of an older drinker who hasn’t got the energy or inclination to go beyond his flavour comfort zone. I’m sure he’s not, but in this slightly smug article he comes across as a bit of a snob. It’s a shame, but it’s not going to stop the dynamic natural wine movement in its tracks, or spoil the fun of younger drinkers who are having a good time exploring these wines.

Centonze Frappato 2013, a beautifully floral Sicilian red

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I do like Frappato. It’s a grape variety that yields beautifully fresh, floral, lighter-style reds, even in the warm climate of Sicily. This is a truly seductive, floral example.

Centonze Frappato 2013 Sicily, Italy
13% alcohol. Sweet, supple, floral nose of red cherries and rose petals. On the palate this shows supple, sweet fruit with red cherries and plums. It’s quite light-bodied, but generously flavoured, with a slightly grainy structure. Fresh, supple, pretty and delicious. 91/100 (£13.50 Haynes Hanson & Clark)

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

From the road in South Africa: Delaire Graff and 96 Winery Road

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I’m on my way home from a brief trip to South Africa to judge a Chenin Blanc competition. I spent just two nights here, although because of the overnight flights this translated into the best part of four days on the ground. Both nights were spent at the fabulous Delaire Graff estate, in one of their luxurious lodges. It was very cool.
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I have stayed in many nice places around the world, but this is remarkable by any standards. The lodges are stunning, consisting of a bedroom, a large sitting room, a small kitchen area and a lovely bathroom, as well as a decking area outside with a private swimming pool that’s secluded from the view of the other lodges. Everything is just about perfect. There’s also a communal area with a gym and spa, plus a larger swimming pool, and there are two world-class restaurants: the Delaire Graff and Indochine (which has an Asian influence, and is, by a small margin, my favourite of the two). The lodges are in the middle of the wine estate, and the views here are quite beautiful.

The grounds are also lovely, and there are three signposted walking trails, of which I ran two, and still have sore legs because one is right up a very steep hillside. [The Delaire Graff wines, made by Morne Vrey, are consistently good, and I'm going to write these up soon.]

Ina Smith of the Chenin Blanc Association

Ina Smith of the Chenin Blanc Association

Last night the judges from the Chenin Blanc competition, plus members of the team and a few winemakers had dinner at 96 Winery Road. It was a really good evening, and I managed to take notes on some of the wines.

Carl Van de Merwe of De Morgenzon (left), Bruwer is right. Carl's wife is sandwiched.

Carl Van de Merwe of De Morgenzon (left), Bruwer is right. Carl’s wife Kathleen is sandwiched.

Bruwer Raats, Christian Eedes and Higgo Jacobs

Bruwer Raats, Christian Eedes and Higgo Jacobs

Simonsig Cape Winemakers Guild Chenin Blanc Rousanne 2013 Stellenbosch, South Africa (tank sample)
A blend of 82% Rousanne and 18% Chenin that Simonsig are planning to make a Cape Winemakers Guild wine when it’s finished. This is rich, textured, warm and spicy with pear and peach fruit, as well as a stony, mineral note. Rich but with lovely acidity. 91-93/100
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De Morgenzon DMZ Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Just a baby, bit so clean and linear with great potential. Rich, clean, spicy and bold with fresh pear and citrus fruit. Mineral with nice weight, and lively purity. 92/100
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Rudera Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
It’s the first time I’ve had this wine, and I really enjoyed this for its lovely pure blackcurrant fruit with sweet berry notes. Admirable freshness and focus here; a wine with real potential for mid-term development. 92/100
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Mvemve Raats MR de Compostella 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is very tight and fresh, and painfully youthful, but I think its the best example of this wine that I’ve tried. Lovely sleek blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with taut spiciness and structure. Nicely dense and quite serious. 94/100

De Morgenzon DMZ Reserve Syrah 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A new wine that hasn’t been released yet. It’s really good, in a ripe style but showing nice definition. Fresh, vivid and ripe with bright peppery black cherry fruit and a sleek texture. Nice focus: very seductive but elegant with it. 94/100

Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is, according to Bruwer, the best vintage yet of this wine, and I’m inclined to agree, with its sweet blackcurrant fruit together with a chalky texture and some subtle green hints that just fit in perfectly. Lovely focus and weight here. 92/100

Johan Malan Cape Winemakers Guild Simonsig Heirloom Shiraz 2010 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a big ripe wine, but I think it also manages to stay in balance. It shows sweet black cherry and plum fruit, with freshness and some lovely olive focus, as well as some spicy notes. Good definition to the sweet, pure fruit, and I find it quite delicious. 93/100

Consider Chenin

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For the last couple of days I have been judging the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge, held at Klein Zalze in Stellenbosch. 126 different wines were entered, and the panel of five, chaired by Cristian Eedes, tasted all of them, and then retasted the top 32 wines to select 10 winners. So here are some of my thoughts from spending two days immersed in South African Chenin Blanc

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Chenin is lovely. And it does well in South Africa. This should be the most important take-home message. Buy it! It’s usually really great value for money.

Chenin is a chameleon variety, able to make wines in many styles. This is a positive, but it does have a downside: the problem consumers face when they try to select a bottle. They just don’t know what to expect. The words ‘Chenin Blanc’ on the label don’t give a reliable cue as to what’s in the bottle. Cheap Chenin is simple enough in this regard: it’s almost always made in a fresh, fruity, unoaked style. But for more expensive bottles, where style varies dramatically, some sort of easily understood scale on the bottle would be helpful, and I propose that it should be a visual analogue scale with three dimensions. People understand these scale bars – your battery life on your phone, the time remaining for a download, or attributes on a video game. The dimensions could be: rich and ripe to fresh and crisp; sweet to dry; and wooded to unwooded. (Probably in the other order, actually – that is, the scales start with fresh and crisp, unwooded and dry.)
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Don’t make the foot fit the slipper. Making Chenin Blanc is all about intelligent interpretations of the terroir(s) you are working with. You may admire Loire Chenin (whatever that is, the style varies massively), but the Western Cape is different from the Loire. A few Chenins I tasted felt forced: it’s as if the winemaker had a stylistic goal in mind but the site (or sites) didn’t have a natural talent for this style. If your vineyard gives you rich wines naturally, then make good examples of the richer style.
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Likewise, there has been a bit of a pendulum swing away from the big, rich styles. I can understand this, but it’s best if the pendulum doesn’t swing too far in the other direction. We should be praising wines for their positive virtues, not awarding them for what they are not. I would like people to think well of me because I was kind, not because I happened not to beat my wife.
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Chenin Blanc doesn’t have a price ceiling in the way that Sauvignon Blanc does. It’s a variety that can make wines with greater complexity and depth as you go up the price scale, and which produces bottles that people can justify spending a lot more on. I guess this is a result of its flexible personality.

What is it that makes a Chenin highly desirable at the top end? In other words, if you wanted to create an ‘icon’ Chenin (horrible, horrible term, I know), what would it taste like? In the Loire, the most expensive wines are sweeter styles of Vouvray that live forever, and top dry wines such as the best Savennieres. These are multidimensional, complex, vital wines that combine richness with concentration and definition. For South Africa, I guess the most expensive Chenin would be Eben Sadie’s old vine series Mev Kirsten. This is a beautifully detailed wine that combines richness with precision. It’s only made in tiny quantities, but this sort of style seems to be the way to go at the very top end.

Some great wines at lunch, including Cristal, Faiveley Corton and Schlumberger GC Saering

roederer cristal

After judging the Roederer Awards on Tuesday, we repaired to Chez Buce, where – naturally – we popped a couple of bottles of Roederer’s Cristal. This was followed up with some other gems from the Roederer portfolio (they own MMD, who distribute Roederer and other wines in the UK). Yes, these bottles were a little young, but they were delicious.

Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal 2005 France
This is wonderfully taut and vivid with flavours of grapefruit, lemon and subtle toast, with some pear and peach richness. It’s powerful and lively, with beautiful focus and real complexity. But the overall feel is one of delicacy and precision. 94/100
schlumberger riesling saering

Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru Saering 2008 Alsace, France
This dry Riesling is beginning to drink now, but it is built for the long haul. Very fresh and bright with lemony fruit and a subtle creaminess. Nicely textured with a dry, mineral character. Very persistent and focused with purity and concentration. 93/100
Faiveley Corton

Faiveley Corton Grand Cru Monopole Clos des Cortons 2007 Burgundy, France
So young, but more approachable than you’d expect at this stage, especially for Faively. Lovely aromatics of spice and earth with some herbs and some bright cherry fruit. Fresh, supple, spicy berry fruits on the palate with a bit of earthy structure and some lively pepperiness. Seamless integration of ripe cherries, spice and minerals, with great definition and good structure. Very stylish wine. 95/100

Castiglion Del Bosco Brunello di Montalcino 2008 Tuscany, Italy
Sweet, pure black cherry and plum fruit with some spice and mineral notes. A ripe, textured wine that’s rich yet balanced, with hints of leather and herbs. 92/100

Ramos Pinto Late Bottled Vintage Port 2009 Douro, Portugal
Sweet, ripe, spicy and rich with warm, sleek blackberry and black cherry fruit. A rich, sweet wine with freshness and purity. 91/100

Off to South Africa again

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So this evening I am flying to South Africa again. Just for a few days this time. And I’m going while it’s winter there, which is bad planning. There’s nothing like a dose of summer dropped into February or March to raise the spirits. Fortunately, Cape Town winters are pretty much like bad English summers, so I’ll not suffer too much.

The reason for travelling is to judge a new Chenin Blanc competition. I’m really looking forward to it, because Chenin is such a versatile grape variety and always shows really strongly in the Top 100 South African wines competition that I take part in each March. Hopefully, this competition will focus more attention on this variety, which South Africa can proudly lead with, and potentially claim some sort of ownership over. After all, Loire Chenin, which can be great, rarely has the name of the variety on the label.
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This is where I’ll be staying again, for the second time. It won’t be as sunny, but it’s a stunning view from each of the rooms, which all have their own private pool!

Winning best overall wine blog in the Wine Blog Awards

It was nice to wake up yesterday to a facebook message from Katie Myers telling me I’d won the best overall wine blog category at the Wine Blog Awards in the USA. It was only this evening, when the results were officially posted on the website, that I really believed it was true.

It’s a lovely affirmation to win awards like this. Tomorrow, I’m doing the final stage of judging this year’s Roederer awards, meeting with the fellow judges to decide who gets to win that award. I think the right attitude to have towards awards is this:

You enter. If you are shortlisted, or win, it’s a great bonus. If you don’t get shortlisted, or get shortlisted and don’t win, nothing is lost. It just wasn’t your year. Maybe one of the judges had a personal grudge against you. Or maybe your work wasn’t great. Or maybe your work was great, but it got lost in the crowd. Or maybe the judges just aren’t smart enough to appreciate what you do.

The important thing is never to get bitter or grumpy about the miscarriage of justice that evidently led to you not winning. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t, but if you never enter you never win. It’s always worth the effort entering because of the buzz you get when it’s your time, and you do succeed. You just have to deal with the disappointment (I should know, having been shortlisted a gazillion times for the Roederers, but never having won it.)

So I’m massively grateful to all those who voted for my blog, for all those who read my blog, and I’m massively apologetic to all those out there with much better blogs, but who – for one reason or another – it wasn’t their year.