Do you speak wine?
I love language, not just for the stories we can use it to tell, but for the stories and history inherent in the words themselves.
Happily, organisations around the world are working to preserve obscure dialects and vocabularies before they are lost. From Lisbet Rausing’s pledge to resurrect hundreds of dead languages, to Robert Macfalane’s brilliant tribute to the language of the natural world, there is clearly value in a vocabulary, however impenetrable, which specifically celebrates and details.
However, the consensus around wine seems to veer in the opposite direction.
When I worked in-house for a wine company, there was constant discussion of how we could make wine descriptions more accessible. But when you’ve been brought up in the school of WSET it’s hard to unlearn the habit of chucking descriptors, (metaphors really), like ‘mineral’ and ‘farmyard’ around with abandon.
That company was not alone in addressing the language we use when we talk about wine. Glossaries abound in topical books and on the wine-web – and there seems to be fair agreement between the industry’s influencers that the way we talk about wine has to change.
But does it? Quite aside from the meaning inherent in specialised wine language – terroir, cru and so on, consider other trade languages. In his recent book, Down To Earth, gardener Monty Don writes on horticultural language in terms which could as easily be ascribed to wine:
“All those Latin names! Do not be intimidated. There has to be some universal language that determines and labels all flora…It is so much more important to know if a plant makes your heart sing than what its Latin name is”
He hits the nail on the head: for international products, there has to be a language in common – especially one which gives body to hard to qualify phenomena such as terroir. But he also makes a similarly relevant point: that ‘proper’ vocabulary is less important than your experience of the plant – or wine.
It was with this in mind that I read with horror Bianca Bosker’s account of the efforts of the US Guild of Sommeliers to make somms use the chemical names of aroma compounds in her book, Cork Dork. Whilst objectively I can appreciate the desire to strip wine descriptions of their perceivably subjective faff. But – it’s precisely the language used which brings colour and personality to the discussion of wine.
I say, let’s not strive to demystify – but to educate.