Richard Hemming: Mind your language

Hand-picked, whole bunch, punched down, 50% old French for 12 months. For most people, that sentence is utterly impenetrable. Is it about flowers? Bananas? Abused Parisian pensioners?

Like any specialist field, wine has developed language to allow efficient and accurate communication between those who understand it. If a producer is handing me a sample of Syrah at an overcrowded tasting, hearing that above sentence is incredibly helpful. For customers browsing for a bottle of red to drink with their Sunday roast, it would most likely be the polar opposite.

It should be self-evident that communication needs to be pitched to different levels of understanding, and to be appropriate and unintimidating without being patronising. Responses to: “I’m looking for an oaked New World Pinot to lay down for 10 years” and “Do you sell red wine?” will be very different – although, incidentally, they should both start in the same way: “Absolutely, no problem.”

Describing wine to the uninitiated is not an easy thing to do well. Anything technical should be explained, because even phrases that seem routine to us – describing a wine as “quite tannic” for example – can be alienating. That doesn’t mean dumbing down. It means explanation without confusion, by using easily understood terms such as soft, savoury and fruity.

However, those same basics turn into lazy options when talking to knowledgeable wine drinkers. “Freshness” is used so liberally at tastings now that it risks becoming meaningless. Does it mean crisp acidity, intense primary fruit or pétillance? More often than not – and I’ve done this myself, I confess – it’s a generic complimentary term used as a safe opening gambit.

The cumulative impact is to undermine the value and capacity of the language we use. “Minerality” is another well-known offender – although the difference here is that this word doesn’t have value when talking to non-experts (whereas “freshness” does), and there is an ongoing debate about what the term itself means.

Conversing knowledgably about wine naturally stimulates a feeling of camaraderie and belonging. And, with tasting notes especially, it’s about describing sensory reactions, which differ from person to person. Problems arise because it is therefore virtually unthinkable to contradict a peer’s description of a wine.

I’m not advocating we go around gainsaying each others’ flavour descriptors (“redcurrants? Nonsense, you fool!”) but I am saying we should strive for accuracy and be wary of vagueness, especially with structural elements such as acidity, tannin, sugar and body, which have more of an objective value.

But there is one aspect of wine language I would ban, and that’s anything related to gender anthropomorphism. Calling a wine masculine or feminine is probably not offensive to most, and I understand the inference, although there are better terms. But saying a wine is unoaked because beautiful women don’t need make-up, or using lascivious terms such as “sexy”, “curvaceous” or “buxom” smacks of sexist machismo, and we, the wine trade, should know better.

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