Why Abstract Terminology Can Be a Good Thing or In Defense of the Nonsense

Two or three years ago I read an article by an Australian wine journalist which was basically apologising for some of the more flamboyant vocabulary that often accompanies discussions, reviews, or tasting notes of wine. He explained how he often got comments from people along the lines of, “What the hell is an angular wine?” Or, “There’s an erotic quality to this wine!? That’s weird and gross.” 

He was referring to descriptors that are not literal, as well as language used that is so esoteric that only a handful of people in the world will know what it actually means. He went on to say that really there was no need for these types of words to be used. They are often nonsense and all they achieve is to confuse and intimidate wine drinkers who aren’t familiar with the lingo, adding to the perception of the wine world’s elitism.

Now, elitism in wine is certainly something which occurs, often unnecessarily, and sadly puts off some people from getting more involved in the wine world. This is something that all wine professionals need to be aware of, and there are a few writers out there who, well, they just need to pull their heads out of their own arses. Or perhaps each other’s.

But… I also think that if we restrict ourselves to literal descriptors only, then so many tasting notes will look even more similar than they do already, and things will get boring fast. Not only that, but, more importantly we would be dumbing down and limiting what we can actually say about something so incredibly complex as a glass of wine. Wine is an intricate and sometimes perplexing entity, in its own objective right and also in our individual perceptions of it. Describing these perceptions to other people can get difficult, especially when we find ourselves reaching for ways to explain how it feels as a whole. This is when literal descriptors just don’t cut it. Anyone who has ever had a “wine moment” will understand this. Hätsch Kalberer of Fromm Winery in Marlborough describes that “elusive extra dimension” as the “bliss factor.” 

And what if we want to talk about the personality of a wine… Wait – I know these things simply don’t make sense to some people. The analytical/black-and-white among us perhaps think the anthropomorphism of a bottle of wine is plainly ridiculous. But, if you are anything like me, it’s exactly those qualities in wine that speak to us on a human, emotional level that are the most fascinating parts! These qualities are impossible to describe with literal descriptors. If wine was so easily deconstructed then it would also be easily replicated, and again, we would be on the path to boredom. 

Appreciating wine can be much like appreciating art. You can detect all the parts to it, they are all there before you, but as a whole it can become something more exceptional and emotive. It can conjure feelings by suggestion, like poetry. It can evoke excitement and energy, or calmness, like music. It can ride a line of tension between austerity and forgiveness, it can chastise us but leave us wanting more, it can be soft and generous - it can be a constantly evolving, fluid metaphor for the contradiction and beauty inherent in life…

So I get a little carried away sometimes. But seriously, I’ve had wines that have made me swoon, made my mind fall out of its intellectualising and just feel (and feel good!). It’s a strange and wonderful thing, and how do you describe it in literal terms?

It can take some work and plenty of background knowledge to understand certain tasting notes, life experience as well as knowledge of wine. But, like anything, once you get there it becomes so much richer and more rewarding for the effort put in.

So I give a resounding, “Booooo…” to that Australian writer for trying to dumb down something which is so beautifully complicated, and trying to cut out the part of wine which is abstract, emotive, and demands metaphor and analogy to share a hint of what it is able to make us feel.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite tasting notes I’ve ever read (thank you Mr Mattinson). Love it or hate it, it’s for a great wine - the 2011 Giaconda Chardonnay (Beechworth, Australia).

Campbell Mattinson 96 points!

An international wine of leisure. Tastes like an American in Paris. Liberace world tour. A self-made man from a south-facing hillside. The beach of an ancient volcano. Beechworth. Kinzbrunner. Soils of smithereened granite and gravel. Money. Wet cold summer.

A fundamentally flamboyant wine, all frills and funk, glitter and glam. Putting it near your nose is like staring into the sun. It’s so smoky. So funky. Like liquid smoke and burnt matches and fennel seeds bashed. This will cause many a drinker to pause, lest their face shatter before their partner’s eyes. The palate is a hard white body, gloves off, all talent and fury. The intensity of rolling thunder. Broad shoulders of white peach and bran and liquid smoke. Notes of twigs and chalk sparkle like talent. Fists of smoky acid. You talking to me? The winemaker’s fingers. The dance. The keyboard. The land as a stage. The toasty extremes. I don’t see anyone else here. Tonight, we drink. The zephyr of gunsmoke. An Australian chardonnay king, in full robe. War in a glass. The journey has come to this.

Wine Front, 2nd August 2013.