So many words to choose from

Are wine tasting notes a load of poppycock?
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Claire Hu mulls over the implications of new research showing most consumers find wine descriptions unhelpful, pompous and downright baffling.

When was the last time you read a mouth-watering wine tasting note that inspired you to immediately rush out and buy said bottle?

Still trying to remember? Then you’re not alone, according to new research showing most people find wine descriptions used by supermarkets, critics and on labels boring, pompous and unhelpful.

A survey of 1,000 people from UK retailer, Laithwaite’s Wine, revealed 55 per cent found tasting notes failed to help them understand the flavour, while nearly two thirds said they never got the same smells from the wine as suggested by the label. Only 9% looked to wine critics before choosing a bottle.

The average consumer is bewildered by some of the language used, according to the poll. Drinkers were asked to select phrases and words they found the most baffling – these included “firm skeleton”, “old bones”, “nervy”, “wet stone”, “haunting”, “brooding”, “minerality” and “vegetal”.
The results were described by Laithwaite’s consultant, Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, as a wake-up call to the whole wine industry to make a change.

Could it really be that bad, I wondered? Having dragged myself through the highly technical WSET Wine Diploma, had I become immune to trade “in-speak”? In a (completely unscientific) survey of my own, I firstly dug out a few bottles I was given recently for my birthday. Here is some of the terminology I found on the labels: “the palate is silky”, “typical herbaseousness (sic)” and “the wine was left on the yeast before degorgement”. Eh?

Secondly, I pulled out a couple of wine guides - The World’s Best Wines from the International Wine Challenge (IWC) and Platter’s - and opened them on random pages. The local publication used by far the more down-to-earth language while the European-dominated IWC guide was littered with turgid and meaningless phrases such as “the palate shows earth”, “quite vinous in a restrained way” and “grippy and tense”. Huh? I started to wonder:  if this really is the best we can do to engage with the great wine-drinking public?

It’s a touchy issue because the way people react to wine is intensely personal and subjective. As many thousands of styles of wine there are in the world, so there are words to describe them. And different classes of consumers have different needs.  A knowledgeable wine boffin looking to spend R10,000 on a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux requires different information, such as how the vintage compares to previous years and ageing potential, to someone looking for an easy-drinking glugger for book club.

I don’t believe that making wine more of an inspirational subject means dumbing-down. Isn’t it rather about making the descriptions more engaging, more relevant to our lives? And, while I’ve been as guilty as other wine critics of not doing this, of trying to reach for words other than the old clichés? Seriously, when was the last time you smelled gun powder, baking brioche, mulberries or wet limestone? Couldn’t we use more accessible adjectives such a really hot braai, mulled wine on a frosty night or the way it smells when you wake up in a tent after a dawn shower?

How about matching wines to occasions and talking about flavours and aromas that have relevance to how we live today? I’m not saying we can’t ever talk about soil types or prevailing winds on wine labels, but just ask yourself: is this information relevant and interesting? As Harry Fawkes, marketer at wine supplier Enotria in the UK, says: “We in the wine industry take pleasure in writing unfriendly tasting notes for consumers, just so we can prove to our peers that we know what malolactic fermentation is.”

So what do you think makes a good tasting note? For me, it paints a picture with words of a wine’s character and the sensual impact it makes. It gives an idea of the birthplace of the wine – and how this makes a difference to how it tastes and smells. It points out some of the characteristics of the wine, whether spice, fruit, oak etc, but in a way that inspires the reader to find their own descriptions. It suggests ideal drinking occasions and food pairings. And for us wine critics, there needs to be an element of assessment – do I like it or not? But again, in a way that leaves room for alternative reactions.

Wine descriptions’ hall of shame:

•    Mineral: a completely vague term
•    Supple tannins: You can’t blame us for thinking of yoga
•    Sloe berries: when was the last time you smelled a sloe shrub?
•    Oaky: In itself, meaningless. What impact has the oak maturation had on aroma and taste?
•    Balanced: what is balanced with what?
•    Wild hedgerow: ditto sloe berries
•    Medium body: so it’s not Jessica Alba but it’s not Mr Bean?
•    Tense: is this wine having a bad attack of PMT?
•    Good acidity: good in what sense?
•    Engaging nose: do you mean the wine is witty?




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