Monday, April 30, 2007

Is Winespeak Bunk?

Winespeak--the lingo used by wine critics and connoisseurs--is often dismissed by the average wine drinker as worthless pretension. However, paying attention to the descriptions on the back of wine bottles can help train your nose and palate to discriminate subtle differences of aroma and flavor.

According to Bryan Miller, in recent years "winespeak has reached a dazzling state of hyper-fermentation, releasing a gaseous haze of verbiage that can be seen from Sonoma to Saint-Julien." Miller heaps scorn upon the attempt by certain wine writers to describe wines using terms like 'crème brûlée,' 'dew,' 'egg custard,' 'almond cheese pastry,' and 'flan.' Jon Cohen raises doubts about the value of terms like 'elegant,' 'generous,' 'graceful,' 'lush and creamy,' 'rubenesque,' and 'harmonious' for facilitating useful communication about wine.

Although some winespeak certainly is certainly over the top, too many people automatically assume they won't be able to detect the flavors that are mentioned in such descriptions and so never even try to detect them. However, if you want to take your appreciation of wine to the next level, I recommend that you try to detect the aromas and flavors mentioned on the back of a bottle or on the winemaker's website.

Here's an example of what you can do. Last week my wife and I opened a Syrah from McManis Family Vineyards in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The wine was surprisingly good, given its $10 price tag. Because the back of the bottle did not contain a description of the wine, I went to the winery's website and found the following:
"The succulent fruit flavors lead to a toasted oak mid palate and then on to a finish of cocoa and spicy oak. The aromas are of dense, big jammy fruit; raspberries and plums. The bouquet delivers a nice complexity of sweet vanilla."
My wife and I were able to clearly discern aromas of dense, big jammy fruit, raspberries and vanilla, though we weren't so sure about the plums. That's three out of four. You'd be surprised what you can detect when you put your mind (and your nose) to it.

Wine descriptions on bottles and websites can direct your nose to aromas that you might not be able to distinguish if you weren't consciously looking for them. Here's an analogy: Have you ever noticed that the head and hands of Michelangelo's David are out of proportion with the rest of his body? Even though you've seen pictures of this statue before, you may not have noticed the size of his head and hands, but (and here's the key) as soon as I tell you where to direct your attention, you can immediately recognize this feature. Wine descriptions can do that for your nose and palate. Try taking them seriously and see how many of the described components you can detect.

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