by Jonathan “Max” Davis
Wine is seventy to ninety percent water and contains over three hundred organic compounds, including esters, aldehydes, polyphenols and trace amounts of salts and metals. People have been making wine for about nine thousand years, but we still haven’t quite figured out how to talk about it.
The simple reason is that every wine is a unique and complex combination of flavors that we each apprehend differently and for which we have precious few unambiguous words. Because our experience of wine is so difficult to convey, people short on imagination tend to throw their arms up in despair and call shenanigans on those of us who try. The argument for shenanigans goes like this: “Wine is made from grapes and that’s exactly what it tastes like: sour, fermented grapes.” This is fair and I agree. I’d rather not get into the messy business of putting more words to it either, but if you like to drink wine, learning how others describe it will help you find the wines you most enjoy. It’s far from an exact science, but practiced with humor and humility, talking and writing about wine can be useful and amusing.
The basic flavors of wine are sweet, sour and bitter, and we vary widely in our sensitivity to each flavor. When asked whether or not a particular wine is sweet, tasters will often contradict one another. Of course, there is no right answer. The wine contains sugar and alcohol, both of which contribute to an impression of sweetness, but the flavor does not reside in the wine; it is our own creation, like our perception of color from differing frequencies of light. There are indisputable scientific properties of a wine, but a list of chemical compounds, alcohol percentages and pH levels cannot be translated into an accurate approximation of how the wine will taste.
Wine descriptions often sound awkward or forced, in part because we lack the right tools for the job. Aside from the five basic tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory, or umami—we have no vocabulary for this neglected faculty, so we borrow descriptors from the other senses to approximate our experience. We will say something tastes bright or soft, as though we could see or feel it. “Flavor” refers to the elusive combination of taste, smell, physical sensation, sight and sound. Our olfactory sense provides us with most of our flavor information, but our language is ill-equipped to clearly relate what we smell. We have nonspecific words like “stinky” or “fragrant”, or we refer directly to the odor-emitting entity. The Jahai people of the Malay peninsula have many more words for various types of smells, including several words for bloody or meaty odors, one specifically for “a bloody smell that attracts tigers.” (Majid & Burenhult, Cognition , 2014, p. 130) We teach our children words to categorize colors and sounds, but scents remain ineffable abstractions, as difficult to describe as complex emotions, so we need to employ some creative constructions to get these ideas across. Can you describe the flavor of Coca-Cola or even that of a carrot in clear and literal English?
When words are insufficient, we employ figures of speech to create meaning, and so wine-speak is rife with the requisite similes, metaphors and analogies. Niki Segnit compares the flavor of a clove to “sucking on a sweet, rusty nail.” (The Flavor Thesaurus , Bloomsbury 2010, p. 14.) This prompts the exasperated response: “Now why would I be sucking on a nail? Do you people walk around sticking everything you find in your mouth?” Some of us do, but others simply pay attention to the countless smells and flavors all around them. Our brains have plenty to worry about, so if we don’t make the effort to focus on various odors, they will pass unnoticed and we will be left describing wine as “grape-y.” In order to convey complex flavors, we must be willing to refer to things we would never eat. People often find words like “barnyard” and “wet stone” to be disagreeable descriptors, but they are distinctive scents and they need not be ingested to carry real significance. These inedible referents are rarely predominant flavors, but they are remarkable enough to contribute to the wine’s distinctiveness, and with practice and attention, anyone with half a nose can hone their ability to distinguish these and other seemingly unlikely flavors and find meaningful ways to communicate them.
Finally, a word on wine bullshit; you’ll know it by its barnyard aroma, and don’t let it ruin your enjoyment of wine. Be warned that it flows freely in the wine industry, where an attractive adjective or high point score will not so much deepen your understanding of a wine as it will the pockets of the writer. And, by all means, continue to grant no quarter to the snob—friend or somm—who uses their wine knowledge to diminish you or tries to tell you what you should or should not enjoy.
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Jonathan “Max” Davis discovered his love for wine decades ago while working at Chez Panisse Café and Restaurant, in Berkeley, and has been daily and devotedly tasting ever since. Having moved from restaurants to retail, he most recently served as the wine buyer for Smith & Vine, a boutique wine shop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and has written wine and book pairings for the 2013 National Book Awards Finalists.