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Wine writing is an imprecise art


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“From the sweet tinge of bubblegum to the metallic tang of blood, the world of wine is home to some less than ordinary tastes and aromas.”

Thus wrote Lauren Eads in prominent international boozemag The Drinks Business at the weekend. She listed 10 aromas or flavours that newcomers to wine description find, well, strange, if not plain unlikely.

Bacchus knows I’m the last old bastard to discourage anybody from having a bit of a write, but he, too, must cringe at the limited way the wine world approaches its descriptive language, which is the issue Lauren addressed. I’m not one to grieve too hard at the contemporary deconstruction of the formal language my generation was taught – thank-you Miss Mizing for your dazzling English classes – but I wish like hell that as much effort went into the wit and twist available to the thinking communicator as goes into the current fashion of abbreviating stuff.

Realising that gadgets like Twitter are hardly great avenues for essays on the confounding world of sensory perception, the best tweeters still manage to find a way around such restrictions with clever thought, supported by a learned measure of audacity and an appreciation of the perverse thrill of risk.

Lauren’s mention of blood reminded me of a typically cryptic tweet the great pianist James Rhodes hung out a few days back. “Why,” he asked, “does glass always taste like blood?”

James is as wicked with the language keyboard as he is at the piano and is a good man to follow for dry wit as much as his beautiful music. All would-be wine writers can learn from his brevity and his ability to invoke strings of puzzled thought that eventually lead the reader to an understanding of his point. While the microprocessors of the brain whirr like topsy to unlock such puzzles, scouring its vast repository for linguistic keys, it teaches itself new things as it opens the content of countless thousands of long-forgotten files.

Which is a furtherance of my longstanding belief that writing about smells and flavours and the feelings they impart is as imprecise a sport as writing about music or fine art.

To take it back to James’ primary communicative skill, his music, here’s a recent intro he tapped to encourage us to listen to a skerrick of Bach he’d just put on Soundcloud:

“Brilliant, if stupidly difficult, gigue from Bach’s 1st Partita,” he tweeted. “Hands crossing everywhere all over the keyboard like an angry fly on meth.”

Bugger The flight of the bumblebee …

In her Drinks Business piece, Lauren referred to an earlier interview with Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford. He’s been working on taste with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, and insists that our dogma about the mouth being able to detect “only about five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and recently umami” is plain nonsense. He went on to insist that there are “at least 20 different tastes detected in the mouth, like fat, metallic, calcium, astringency and hotness”.

I’ve always wondered about our receptors for that obvious essential, water. Those few basic tastes taken as scripture for more than a century have never stretched to explain our appreciation of the very compound which makes up about 60 per cent of our body mass: plain old H2O.

In her story, Lauren also lists nail polish remover, petrol, burning rubber, eucalyptus, wet wool, banana, shit and lead pencil as wine components she considers “less than ordinary”.

Surely the wonder of these things has largely to do with their ordinariness?

As science drags its feet in its rote laboratory attempts to prove that people like me cannot possibly see the range of things we claim to find in drinks like wine, it should nevertheless be encouraged.

Now that Tony Abbott seems to be throwing money back at the scientists he had only just removed it from, all in the pursuit of lost pollster points, I suspect he’d scratch a few backs, not to mention a few important backs, if he allocated some of our money to the exploration of how our organoleptic senses choose to make us avoid certain aromas and flavours while sending us greedily in pursuit of others.

This could, by a back door method, help unlock many of the above-mentioned puzzles. It may also assist us to avoid eating the poisonous berries his under-funded health officials let through to the shelves of Woolies and Coles.

Who knows? It may even replace some of the precise language study which has stupidly fallen off this nation’s school syllabi.

When describing drinks, I’m reluctant to insist precisely that certain chemicals are present in them: I’m not a biochemist, or even an organoleptic technician.

Sure, there are many compounds I am confident to suggest, but like my burgeoning cohort of wine experts, Masters of Wine and members of the quaintly-named Wine Communicators of Australia, I am as ignorant of the true science of our mystifying abilities to detect such things as our beloved Prime Minister, his love of raw onion notwithstanding.

So with confidence I ply the waters of simile and metaphor, hoping the beloved readers at least get a feeling.

Before we set out to write of certain tinctures, we wine “communicators” frequently forget to ask ourselves one vital question: Are we here to ingratiate ourselves with favoured producers, or indeed to bring joy to the faces of those who bother to read us and risk taking our advice?

It seems to me that too few in this racket can seriously call themselves wine critics, which may explain why most of them don’t. On the other hand, most have no hesitation in using the word “writer”.

I suppose we do indeed write – that appellation insinuates no measure of accuracy, knowledge or skill.

Which leads me to the vital lesson firmly tattooed on the inside of my forehead. It’s Leonard Cohen, reflecting on his long entanglement with the bottle.

“I only drank professionally”, he recalled. “I found this wine: it was Chateau Latour. The experts talk about the bouquet and the tannins and the fruit and the symphonies of tastes. But nobody talks about the high. Bordeaux is a wine that vintners have worked on for 1,000 years. Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned.”

My limited science aside, the single most important thing about wine is the way it makes me feel. Try as they might, no underfunded whitecoat can disprove anything so personal, nor can they deny my right to explain this in my own language.

Which I shall continue to practise. But from now, I’ll scarcely manage to put a snifter to my lips without wondering about blood. Note to self: don’t bite the glass, Whitey.

Then I’ll want to hear James Rhodes play the piano, see?

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