The other side of silly wine terminology

Harry Haddon responds to 10 silliest wine tasting terms.

by: Harry Haddon | 23 Apr 2013
Harry Haddon

Cathy Marston recently railed against 10 silliest wine tasting terms. I will defend these terms, if not to the death, then at least until I open my next bottle of wine.

Wine terms become very silly when you take them away from wine. Horse-saddle, minerality, and lengthy legs become absurd when the context is removed. As we try and explain and describe wines to one another we come up against a rather sticky problem: how to describe a sense, taste or smell in words. A smell can never be a word. If a wine has the smell of rose water, and rose water the smell of roses, what do roses smell like? It all gets rather silly to begin with.

Why wine writers need to describe their subject down to crazy minutiae is beyond me. You do not see movie critics describing every scene of a film, nor do art critics naming each and every colour of a painting. However we have all developed our own language, and this is a tongue-in-cheek attempt at defending some of the words in the language of wine.

Pronounced Nose
Use: “Dear me Gerald, this Chenin does have the most pronounced nose of pineapples.”

Why wine tasters never just said, “this wine is very smelly”, we will never know. Perhaps the verb, to nose (smell) came first and the lazy writers decided to turn it into a noun. A pronounced version came about most likely because those who imbibe a lot of the good stuff tend to get a rather large, red shnoz.

Like licking a wet stone

Use: On sipping his glass of Chardonnay, Trevor exclaimed loudly, “My goodness, this wine is chock-full of minerality, like licking a wet stone.”

While Cathy may not traipse around river beds licking indiscriminately at the pebbles underfoot, I have, and let me tell you, I‘ve never had reason to shout, “Goodness, licking this pebble is like taking a sip of Chardonnay.”

The reason for this admittedly silly sounding phrase being used, comes from a problematic wine word: minerality. This word is meant to suggest that in a wine, there is the hint or taste of minerals. Sometimes salty, sometimes the smell of the sea air, and sometimes like licking a wet stone, or soup spoon. Minerality continues to create discord among wine tasters.

A feminine wine
Use: “Jassisboet, this rosé is such a chick’s wine.” Or, in more sophisticated circles, “The elegant tannin structure, and feminine touch of the Syrah, won the wine many supporters that day.”

I will not defend the use of this term. It’s sexist. It all starts with a false dichotomy that wine writers love to use. Wines can either be feminine or masculine. Feminine wines being more gentle of touch, like Pinot Noir; while masculine wines are bigger, richer and more muscular like Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes these cross over, possibly in the mind of a bigoted wine taster somewhere these are transgender wines. Who knows? When you see this term in use do not judge the wine, judge the writer.

Use: “Holy smokes, have you tasted this Sauvignon Blanc? Zippy fresh and nervy.”

As you can see from my rather clumsy attempt at an example of use, I do not regard nervy as a very good tasting term. Basically the writer is referring to a good, bracing acidity. The wine is tense, taught, zippy, nervy.

Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry bush
Use: “Egad! This Sauvignon Blanc is rather over the top don’t you say? All cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.”

I would suggest that this phrase is no longer of any use as descriptive, but now functions more as a pejorative. An insult that can be thrown at many a Sauvignon Blanc that tend toward excessive green flavours. They were in fashion once, but like crimped hair, scrunchies, and Bon Jovi - are now very much out of fashion.

Use: “Cyril, have you smelt this wine? Disgusting, full of mercaptans

Foul smelling chemical compounds that can be found in wine when things go awry in the cellar. Basically, yeast and sulfurs being naughty after fermentation. While they may smell cabbage-like, I feel that this is doing a great disservice to cabbage. 

Picked at optimal ripeness
Use: “Please buy our wine,” the marketers cry, “pretty please. It is terroir driven, the winemaker is an artist, our tasting room has many expensive paintings, and the grapes were picked at optimal ripeness.”

Here I agree with Cathy. While wine commentators are able to come up with a whole of drivel at times, they are made to look like rank amateurs when placed alongside the mind-bending skills of wine marketers and PR people who have honed their skills in writing empty phrases.

If anyone tells you that grapes where picked at optimal-bloody-ripeness ask him or her sweetly what this means, and to please, show you why their level of ripeness was so optimal for this wine.

Use: “I say, this Merlot is playing rather dumb this evening, don’t you think Carol?”

I can honestly say I have never heard of anyone using this term in relation to wine. My guess is the wine is rather reticent in relation to its flavors and aromas. Now I think about it, I rather enjoy it. There are all sorts of offensive possibilities here, a Helen Keller like Malbec, perhaps?

Voluptuous and Seductive
Use: “Heavens, Shirley, this Syrah is one voluptuous beast, and so seductive, so seduc…oi, passh that bottle, now.”

While Cathy may lament her wines being compared to sex, I wholeheartedly support it. The squishy and slushy pleasures of Chenin; the moaning of Mouvedre, the nibbling of Nebbiolo, and the arched-back pleasures of sweet wine.

I may have got carried away a little there, but if we are going to compare wine and sex, the one thing we can say is that we don’t want them to be nice. No, we want them to be orgasmic.

Cathy’s right. Dry stuff we drink. Très craycray!

Follow Harry Haddon on Twitter @HarryReginald for more hilarious wine stained stories.

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