Last night I watched the movie version of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. I am a huge fan of the 1982 PBS mini-series, and I’m afraid that made it impossible for me to enjoy the movie. It seemed truncated and confused; and Matthew Goode is no Jeremy Irons.  At any rate, the film reminded me of the wonderful scene where Charles and Sebastian raid the Brideshead wine cellar and attempt to be serious about learning about wine. They start off well-intentioned enough studying a glass of 1895 Chateau Lafite, but quickly get completely sauced and start hilarously mocking the way people talk about wine.

“It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
“And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”
“Like a swan.”
“Like a unicorn.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of wine vocabulary. They way we talk about wine now is really quite different than the approach of previous generations. In his autobiography, the venerable Hugh Johnson says about current wine vocabulary, “I don’t really want my favourite subject to be ridiculed. There is a problem when these people list all these flavours and aromas they think they have detected. It then gets on to the label of the bottle and what you are looking at appears to be a recipe for fruit salad.”

Touché. However, his generation had their own approach (itself not beyond reproach), which usually meant describing wines as various types of women, e.g. “voluptuous”, “shy”, “seductive” or “frigid.” 

In the last few decades, there have been attempts to formalize and standardize wine vocabulary. Ann Noble, an emeritus professor of enology at UC Davis, created the Aroma Wheel in 1982. It is made up of concentric circles: the innermost circles are more general (floral, fruity, herbaceous) and the outer circles become increasingly specific (violet, blackberry, eucalyptus).  The Wine and Spirit Education Trust has a devised a similar system, called the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting. While I think it is a little silly to formalize something that could (and perhaps should) come naturally, I found these to be helpful when learning about wine for the first time. Some grape varieties really do smell like other fruits. Specifically, Sauvignon Blanc and Scheurebe often smell like citrus. Gewurtztraminer smells like either roses or lychees,  no doubt about it.  

Ideally, one develops their own style of tasting note, incorporating whatever one likes from current or historic traditions. In my own tasting notes, I tend to summon the character of fruits, as well as other smells found in the world. Here are some examples of recent tasting notes of mine:

On a dessert Muscat: “Orange blossom…is exactly what [the wine] smells like.  Also, dried peaches and apricots, honey, and something else lovely and unnameable.  It is sweet and viscous like honey, but with enough acidity to prevent it from being too heavy on the tongue.”  

On Trousseau from the Jura: “The wine smelled like cranberry, graphite, and indeed game; the palate was full of red fruits and a subtle bitterness that was pleasantly reminiscent of a cherry pit.  It was wonderful, and hauntingly contradictory–light and heavy, refreshing and rich, fruity and mineral.” 

Really, there is nothing to stop you from saying something is both reminiscent of a fruit and a person. I can easily imagine a wine (Australian Shiraz, perhaps) having the following description: “Smells like plums, cream, and vanilla. Tastes as flabby and overripe as a sweaty, out of shape son of a bitch.” That ought to make both the current guard and Hugh Johnson happy.

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