Understanding the language of wine
“Language is wine upon the lips” (Virginia Wolff) – understanding the language of wine. Owning a vineyard comes with many new responsibilities and a staggering amount of new things to learn but interestingly it does not come with a user manual. And the day you assume ownership there seems to be an unwritten rule that you are suddenly endowed with all things wine knowledge. I did momentarily consider the huff & bluff approach but quickly learnt the wine world is not a fickle place and does not appreciate pretenders or imposters. To drive this point home, in our first month, I found myself in our chai tasting all the wines in the numerous vats (that were in various stages of fermentation and aging) with our oenologist and being asked my opinion. First surprised at being asked, I then proceeded to fumble something about it “seems nice” and the long pause that ensued confirmed what I was thinking; I do not know how to speak wine.
The world of wine has been ridiculed by many a satirical TV show and occasional sideways movie for its sometimes pompous and often misunderstood terms used to describe a glass of fine wine. And while some of it may be warranted, there is in fact a genuine language of wine that while difficult to learn (and sometimes comprehend), it is real and well worth the effort to study and practice. For what makes this language truly unique is that in order to practice, one must drink!
Like any life affirming relationship, the fundamental challenge of speaking wine is getting your head and mouth around it, preferably in unison. What I mean is, when you take a sip of wine, your mouth and palette are bombarded with tastes and physiological reactions. You need to think about and ponder the kaleidoscope of sensory cues being put on offer and then find the appropriate idiom or turn of phrase to describe all those bewildering tastes and sensations.
For the purpose of this post I would like to share some of the simple insights and guidelines I have started to use so that I can try and learn this language by listening, talking and drinking with Viticulturists (wine growers), Oenologist (wine makers), Propriétaires (vineyard owners) and Oenophiles (wine lovers). For while I am still at the early stage of speaking wine, there are 3 guidelines that I have learnt and started using to help me broaden my wine vocabulary.
1. Fundamentally there are two kinds of wine. Wine I like and wine I do not like. As simplistic (and idiotic) as this sounds, once you accept this, it makes tasting wine very easy! The hard part is trying to understand WHY I like what I like and WHY I do not like what I do not like.
2. It never ceases to amaze me how much information is “hidden out in the open” on a wine label (or a label on a vat). I have stopped pretending to glance at a wine label and instead, started taking my time to read everything that is available to read. You will be amazed what you can learn about the contents of a bottle or a vat simply by reading a label.
3. The smells (aroma), taste (flavors) and physiological reactions (sweetness/dryness, acidity, tannins, alcohol and body) of wine comes from very distinct areas; the grapes, the fermentation/maceration and aging in the vat, barrel and/or bottle, that all contribute to give a wine it’s terrior (sense of place). In turn each area generates its own unique descriptors (words) and phrases that the wine fraternity likes to use with colloquial abandonment. The power is linking those recognized words with the wine in your glass. To speed up my acquisition of this vocabulary, I attended many and every (internationally recognized) Wine Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and Wine Scholar Guild classes, courses, wine tastings and exams to obtain their qualifications, certifications and inner sanctum knowledge.
Now, those among you who might not be convinced and have already started huffing & bluffing (and using terms such as bouquet and nice legs), will say none of the above works on a vineyard. To which I would reply “au contraire!”
A working example; we were given a sample of our 2019 vintage by our oenologist to taste and assess. Starting with guideline no.2, I carefully read the handwritten label which stated the vintage, grape variety, “selection” (a term used to describe a specific plot of vines in the vineyard. In Burgundy they would call it a “climat”), vat number, and date of fermentation completion. So before tasting anything I knew this bottle had a newly fermented Merlot from a particular area of vines in our vineyard (and therefore grown on a particular soil).
Next, I poured a glass and after admiring the colour (ruby), I swirled the glass, took in the smell (aromas) and took a sip. Using guideline no.1, I determined that I liked it. But why? Because it was pleasant on my palate and I liked the flavors.
Ok. So by this stage I know what the wine is and I have decided that I like it. Next to coordinate my mouth with my head (not one of my natural talents) and communicate in wine language my thoughts and opinion. Enter guideline no.3.
What is really tricky is to partition and then understand the reactions occurring in your mouth from acidity (the degree your mouth waters) and tannin (a “gripping” sensation on your tongue, gums and cheeks) and then describe them! Once they are determined, it is then onto all the aromas and flavors, which again need to be carefully isolated and given their appropriate elucidation.
Of course, due to its subjective nature there will always be points of difference between any and all wine drinkers. What makes the whole experience of learning the language of wine fun, is one must share another glass of wine to understand those differences!
Back to the sample, in summary my assessment was; Me like. Nice ruby colour, balanced acidity and tannin with aromas and flavors of dark fruit, blackberries and plum (overall a big improvement over “seems nice”!).
Not rocket science or antonyms of words, just my unbiased (wine speak) opinion.