Kahn's Fine Wines

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The Language of Wine

Posted 4:04 PM by

The article below is courtesy of Karen MacNeil in The Tasting Panel, November 2014. These are great ideas and thoughts about describing wine and why it's so difficult. No one's palate is the same, and no one's past experiences that can be used to describe wine are exactly the same. What do you think? What are your thoughts of Ms. MacNeil's ideas?

"You Know What It Tastes Like...But You Just Can't Say It"

   The intersection between taste and language is muddily complex. As we've all experienced, ten people tasting the same wine will come up with ten different descriptions. This wine smells like puppy's breath...It's like the musty aroma of old women sitting in wooden church pews...The lacy negligee character is mind-blowing. (All of these are actual quotes. The single wine in question was a Pinot Noir).

   So what's going on here? Why is taste so hard to pin down? And so hard to agree on? Moreover, why do we so often have the feeling that while we know exactly what we think of wine--long a topic of scientific pursuit--has always been hampered by one simplest fact: There is no accurate, reliable language to describe wine.

   Interestingly, language does describe other things quite well. Linguists point out, for example, that we do have fairly accurate words to describe shape, size, color and spatial relationships. If I say that in front of me there's a blue square plate six inches by six inches, and on it is sitting a scoop of lemon sherbet about two inches in diameter and that one inch from the sherbet are three small 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch cubes of pineapple, you can easily and accurately visualize the dessert even if you never actually see it.

   But wine? It's another story. That's because wine is not its own inherent languate and food is. To say that a strawberry tastes strawberry-ish is sufficient. But, for most of us, to say that a Verdejo tastes like a Verdejo isn't exactly helpful.

   Faced with the lack of a universal, well-understood language to describe wine flavor, it's not surprisingly that wine and beverage pros invented their own. Metaphor is king. A wine can be like almost anything from a cathedral to a cowboy boot. Of course, you might find some descriptions a bit over-the-top (it's a precocious little wine and its femininity is alluring...). But the truth is that these creative, if idiosyncratic, attempts to describe wine do carry some meaning that can orient the taster. Most people for example, know what's meant when a wine is described as soft. Describing the wine as "soft as flannel pajamas" is just going one step further in the attempt to talk to each other about a beverage we love.

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