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Words for wine
making tasting notes more useful

One of the perennial frustrations of writing about wine is the poverty of language we have to describe taste and smell, and the difficulty of communicating what we experience as flavour with these relatively blunt tools of words on a page.

Pick up a wine publication and read some of the tasting notes. How useful are these to you? Do you recognize the wine that is being described? Does the authorís experience resonate with you such that you can imagine you are there drinking a glass with them? I have to admit that this isnít usually the case for me.

Iíve recently been thinking a great deal about how we use words to describe wine, usually in the form of a tasting note. How can I make my writing more useful to those of you who bother to read it? How can I give you the information you want about the wines Iím tasting in a way that is interesting, relevant and good to read?

In communicating about wine, we are assuming a degree of commonality of experience. That is, when you and I sit down together and drink a bottle of wine, we are to some extent experiencing the same thing. Without this shared perception, then the whole venture of writing about wine is a futile one.

Of course, some sceptics would argue that this is the case, their stance fuelled by evidence from the scientific study of flavour that people do differ quite significantly in their taste receptor sensitivity, and likely have different arrays of olfactory receptors. But when I write about how wines taste, Iím making an assumption that you and I have enough in common as we sip and slurp that what I experience is going to be relevant to you as well. Iíd add that itís likely that for some readers there will be greater resonance than others, not just for biological reasons, but also cultural factors which are very strong.

Letís compare the senses of vision and flavour (Iím using Ďflavourí here in preference to Ďtasteí and Ďsmellí, because these two senses are integrated to such an extent in the brain that the distinction between them is functionally rather irrelevant). The power of narrative is that a writer can describe a scene in such away that in our imaginations we can picture it for ourselves, often in a profound way. I can describe my house or my cat or my car to you in ways in which you can construct your own internal picture of them.

But take a distinctive flavour like coriander leaves. No matter how much I try to imagine their flavour in my mind, I canít put together an internal mental construction of them. Flavour seems to operate at a very different level in that when we are given a description of a taste or smell, we canít build this up in our mind in such a way that we can relish or appreciate the flavour, no matter how good the description is.

This is the primary difficulty with writing about wine. Verbal descriptions are imprecise and largely fail to evoke an imagined flavour on the part of a reader. This is why Iím increasingly moving away from descriptions that simply attempt to identify all the different smells and tastes in a particular wine, especially if the writer is more concerned with writing a pretty sounding tasting note blending in exotic fruits and weird spices in order to sound appropriately sophisticated.

Iím concerned with writing notes that have utility for my readers, that will help them get an idea about what I really thought about the wine and why. Yes, I'll continue to use descriptors, but Iíll keep these within the realm of peopleís normal experience. And Iíll use both my numerical and verbal scoring systems to give you a good idea of how I rank the wine with its peers, as long as you promise not to take the scores too seriously and you read the note as well. I also promise to remember who I am writing for (consumers, not the people who make, sell or market the wines), and to be appropriately critical. Still there remain wine writers who are too cowardly to say bad things about wines that deserve it, and seem to like every wine they ever encounter. They are not serving their readers well.

Words about wine are worthwhile, but it is a challenge to use words in such a way that communicates useful information about the subtle and complex flavours encountered in a good wine.  

The philosophy of wine

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