Wednesday, February 15, 2012

if you cannot say what you mean, you will never mean what you say

. . . and a gentleman should always mean what he says.

So said Reginald Fleming Johnston to Puyi (in Bertolucci's Oscar winning film The Last Emperor), that shitstain of a Manchurian whose family allowed China's humiliations after humiliations at the hands of foreign powers over the 19th and early 20th centuries. And as it turns out, those words of wisdom are even more relevant in wine writing.

The latest issue of Decanter magazine has an interesting article by Ch'ng Poh Tiong, publisher of The Singapore Wine Review. Titled 'We should mean what we write, and write what we mean', CPH starts off strong with why wine writers should choose their words carefully, before taking a hard right and veering off into the sordid Jay Miller/Pancho Campo kickback scandal and finishing with a kick at Michel Bettane's campaign to stop publishing Bordeaux En Primeur tasting notes before price releases. But you really only need to read the first few paragraphs.

Ch'ng writes: So if we pronounce a wine to be 'Good' or 'Exceptional', we must sincerely feel that way about it. (We may, of course, be sincere but sincerely wrong, but the subjective view must be personally held in the first place.) Otherwise, were we to declare a wine 'Good' or 'Exceptional' when we know it to be merely mediocre or, worse still, poor, or goodness forbid, utterly hopeless, then we are but hypocrites and liars.

He raises an interesting point. Too often, writers throw out words in description of wine without really thinking or considering what they truly mean. I have a few points of contention I want to raise with how many people talk about wine. In particular, with the following terms, as a start:

"Great" wine. We need to stop using great as a catch-all descriptor for anything we find to be tasty, and instead, reserve it for wines that truly deserve the moniker of being great. Otherwise we just cheapen it. Great wines are wines that firstly satisfy an authenticity to region, varietal, and vintage; in other words, typicity. And secondly, they must be absolutely singular in expression, and invoke an emotion and experience in you that cannot (and never will) be replicated again. These are wines that suddenly deepen your understanding of what wine is, and serve as benchmarks for all future experiences. That's what a truly great wine is.

Smooth. Such a cheap term to use, isn't it? This is smoooooooth. What people are trying to describe with this term is texture. But it is used to talk about everything from tannins to acid to alcohol. We need to be more precise. What exactly are you describing as smooth? Leave the word out of it, and just get down to exactly the element you're discussing. This acid is really balanced, the tannins are really finely grained, the alcohol is well integrated.

Fresh/juicy. This is in relation to the quality of fruit. But really, what we're talking about here is the acidity. Good amounts of acid are what pushes the fruit aromas out of the wine, and preserve a sense of freshness in the wine. Fresh doesn't necessarily refer to a fruity or otherwise primary wine aroma. It's all about the acid.

Jammy. This is a tricky one, because some use jammy in a positive manner, while others (DF included) often use it as a pejorative. Jamminess describes an overtly fruit-rich wine that verges on overripeness. Often, the wines have a marked sweetness and unctuousness to them. In the best cases, the acid levels are high enough to balance them out and retain a degree of freshness. So we have to make a clear distinction here between wines that are actually jammy and wines that are simple and fruit-forward. Jammy wines are, by definition, low in acid and overwhelmingly rich in fruit aromas and flavours.

Oak descriptors. Robert Parker (and many, many other American critics) is known for using several different descriptors to talk about oak. It's just toasted wood aromas - a simple, the wine shows toasty oak, will suffice. But, the American way decrees that the only way to impress your readers of your tasting skills is to list as many laughably specific taste descriptors. Coffee, mocha, vanilla, butterscotch, butter, and the famous pain grillé, favoured by RP Jr. What utter nonsense. It's not so much the flavours of oak that are important to a wine. It's what that oak does to the wine. Is it balanced? Do the wood tannins integrate? Is the actual character of the wine obscured? Who the fuck cares if the oak tastes like coffee or vanilla?

I know there are more words I want to talk about, but this is a start. We really need to be careful about how we write about wine, and really develop a precise, understandable way of describing it. Otherwise, we risk misleading our readers, and forever be typecast as idiot, pretentious twats. And that's not what we want now . . . is it?


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