Wine Wednesday – Pretentious Twaddle

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“Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; first from him, now from you. Is that all you blighters can do?”

Even though Eliza Doolittle was referring to the men in her life, she might just as well have been talking about wine reviews. Many wine reviewers seem to feel that the more convoluted the sentences; the more obscure the references and the more obtuse the linkages are; the more clever they sound and the more respect they will garner.

Seriously! Is there anything more incomprehensible than “oily richness”? If I were looking for a husband, rich and oil are probably a great combination (just don’t tell The Beau), but what does it tell me about the wine? Should I use it as a lotion after my bath or baste my turkey with it to seal it in the moisture? And, does the writer really want me to think of oil when I read this review? Because, to be honest, I don’t want my wine to be oily. In fact, I am sure it is not supposed to be oily at all.

Wine reviews are out of control. Listening to some sommeliers describe a wine is like listening to a cat trying to explain sky-diving to a dog….they speak a different “language” and have no common frame of reference.

To start, can we stop the overuse of the word “character” when it comes to describing wine? I know what I mean when I say someone is a “character.” I am not at all sure what a reviewer is trying to tell me when they say a wine is “profound, mellow and opulent in character” nor what is meant by “dense yet harmonious herbal character of medium body, smooth yet grippy”? (I am sure I have used the word myself….but I’ll be sure to think twice before using it again).

What on earth can “intense and focused, balanced and persistent” tell me about the wine? It sounds more like a US General describing a military air-strike in a far off war.

“Sweet and large-scaled if a bit unrefined” might be helpful if I were looking for a love-match but it’s not very helpful if I am trying to match linguini in a clam sauce.

Frankly, some of these descriptions are so flowery or over the top as to be just plain silly: “This is quite a ballsy Merlot” or “In the mouth, it is juicy, full-bodied, opulent, and impossible to resist.” That last description by noted wine reviewer Robert Parker sounds positively pornographic!

People! It’s wine! Can we at least try to describe it as some sort of beverage? That it has flavours that can be described is without argument. But, are these flavours really “gothic” or “tight”? Can the taste of this drink really be “reminiscent of a Tahitian sunset”? Does the wine really smell like “aggressive notes of spring”? And how can a wine be “intensely Romanesque” unless you mean that it comes from Rome?

My pet peeve? “Fruit forward.” So often I am told, by an over-eager waiter, that I will like this wine as it is “fruit forward.” I assume they are telling me that the first thing I will notice when I sip the wine is the taste of fruit. But which fruit? And is being “fruit forward” a good thing? I was raised to think that being forward borders on rude. I invariably end up with the image of bananas and kiwi getting fresh with me and having to press criminal charges!

Let’s be honest, any description of a wine is subjective. Where I taste grapefruit, you might find lemon. Where I love, you might hate. I describe the wine as “tasting of cooked cherries and vanilla,” you say “it tastes like cinnamon and raisins.” We are all different and we all have different tastes. I happen to like polka dots with checks. To you, this might be an abomination. Just as we see differently, we interpret flavours differently.

I often use the word “brilliant” to describe something good: “If you could take care of that errand for me, it’d be brilliant.” It’s a British thing, probably from boarding school. Language is cultural and personal and so the words we use to describe the way a wine tastes will also reflect our backgrounds and personality.

But, despite our differences, it is possible to use simple, clear words to describe the bouquet (what a wine smells like) and flavours (what a wine tastes like), along with what it looks like and where it comes from, without taking the reader on a roller coaster ride through purple prose and an excess of adjectives.

When I read a wine review, I am not looking for a “Hallmark Moment.” I am trying to get enough information about a wine to know whether to buy it, to understand if it will match the dish I am cooking, or to determine if my best friend is going to like it. I don’t need “transcendent notes of intense luminescence” and “lingering finish of soft rounded fullness.”

All this to say, pretentious twaddle annoys me. I am sure I have been guilty of silliness myself at times. Did that wine really remind me of Paris? Only in the sense that I remember drinking something similar in Paris and my mind wandered back to that day, but it certainly did not taste like the city! And I cringe at times when I reread some of my reviews, wondering what on earth I could have been thinking of when I wrote “It made me think of the Arabian Nights: jewels and dark satin.”

But I do, in general, try to avoid “hints of dank basement with a whiff of desperation” and “firefly notes that sing on your palate,” when “the wine was off and smelled of mould” and “the bubbles tickled” can do the trick. Any review I write is necessarily going to be subjective, but do I try to give the reader the information in such a way that they can decide if this wine is the wine for them.

A fellow blogger once described a wine by making lip smacking noises….believe it or not, we understood what she meant. Certainly we understood that she liked the wine and felt it was a good fit by this gesture far better than is she had said: “My, I find this wine to be complex yet simple in its approach to life. It lifts my spirits and appeals to my inner child while satisfying my need to be an adult.”

Describing a wine is, like many things in life, best kept simple:

  1. What does it smell like?
  2. What does it taste like?
  3. Did you like it?
  4. When would you serve it?

So please, no more wines that “sing softly in the glass”’ and, for heaven’s sake, no more grabby fruit! Keep It Simple Silly!

Wine, like love, is all about the KISS!

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Although trained as a sommelier, I pay my bills working as an IT consultant. I love what I do for a living and keep wine as my hobby. As it looks bad if you only drink, I have occasionally been known to eat as well. Growing up on four different continents, I love to cook and appreciate the cuisines of the world. But wine is my passion. With a well-stocked cellar, I am always on the hunt for new wines and love hearing from people about their latest find or interesting pairing. My approach to wine: Drink what you like. Wine reviews need not be stuffy. Numerical ratings are meaningless. If it tastes good, drink it! If you don’t like it, then it’s not the wine for you.