Forget fishing for snow crabs in the north Atlantic – describing wine is the hardest job in the world

Let’s all take a brief moment to sympathise with wine merchants. I suspect that was the shortest pause since J.Howard Marshall asked Anna Nicole Smith to marry him, so let’s move swiftly on. I was whining because we frequently venture out on a long linguistic limb to convey the character of a wine while nasty, bully-boy cynics stand below shaking the tree. The problem facing anyone writing about wine is the task of describing one thing in terms of another – a distinctly human practice. An animal would view a wine in terms of its wetness, temperature and potability, yet we humans demand similes, metaphors and analogies, which essentially describe something in terms of that which it is not.

It’s no wonder then that if you throw a little alcohol into the mix, you end up with some alarming prose. Jilly Goolden tends to be the fall girl for most satirists, but even the world’s most influential wine writer, Robert Parker, uses some fairly kaleidoscopic imagery, like “acacia flowers, black raspberries, creosote and crushed rocks”, when trying to describe an Australian Shiraz.

Trying to evoke taste through words can be fog-knittingly frustrating, but there’s never any need to hide behind jargon like “sappy” or “sinewy” if the words aren’t forthcoming.

One of the most overused words in wine-writing today is ‘minerality’. No self-respecting white wine dare show its face unless it has this season’s must-have accessory, ‘a strong mineral streak’, yet no one seems willing to define exactly what it means. In that sense, it’s similar to love: resistant to definition and abused by charlatans. Yes, Pouilly-Fumé can exhibit ‘flinty’ notes and Mosel Rieslings can suggest the slate of their steep vineyards, but these are the exceptions not the rule. Caveat empty promises!

‘Terroir’ is another term open to overuse by those wishing to claim integrity for a wine, but at least there’s empirical evidence to show that its influence is real and widespread. It doesn’t just refer to the soil but the interplay of all the natural elements peculiar to a region. A Mercedes Benz built in Germany will essentially be identical to one built in China, but a Pinot Noir made in Nuits-St-Georges will be noticeably different from one made just down the road in Chambolle-Musigny, assuming the winemaker allows the wine to express its origins.

Right, I really must crack on and review this bottle of Cheval Blanc 1990 sitting in front of me. Thank you for your sympathy.

- James Bloom

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