I have a theory about wine descriptors—you know, all those ridiculously precise flavors that wine reviewers always claim to taste in every bottle and that most wine consumers read only as fodder for exasperated jokes. Saddle leather, cocoa (as opposed to dark chocolate), blueberry syrup (as opposed to fresh blueberries), and so on. I’ve always been as put off by that stuff as everybody else, and I’ve also wondered why on earth reviewers think it passes as meaningful wine-reviewing language. Generally speaking, I’m convinced that it’s a kind of intellectual practice that captivates hard-core wine geeks: Hey, let’s see just how many flavors we can perceive in a single mouthful. I’m also convinced that the substitution of this talk for actual communication can be blamed on the fact that it’s a whole lot easier than trying to generate a true impression of a wine. The reviewer knows that flavor-labeling trick, in other words, so he trots it out for show.

I’ve also been inclined, also generally speaking, to share a complaint that I believe comes from Hugh Johnson: to wit, that such talk makes wine sound like so much fruit salad.

But now it occurs to me that the fruit salad complaint actually contains its own retort. Litanies of descriptors make wine sound like fruit salad because our minds are primarily visual. So when somebody lists a bunch of fruit, you just picture fruit; you don’t spontaneously taste it. For example: I opened a sensational bottle of Paxton McLaren Vale Shiraz the other night, and then I read some tasting notes that declared it to have licorice-scented blackberry and pepper. Notes for a prior vintage included claims of leather and meat and cherries. And when I read all of those nouns, my mind’s natural reflex was to do what it always does when confronted with nouns: picture the objects in question. Needless to say, this isn’t very helpful in getting a sense of how a wine tastes.

And this is where my theory leads to a potential practice: If you subvert your mind’s natural imaging reflex, and let each word conjure instead the appropriate taste and smell, then wine descriptors can actually become useful. Holding each descriptor in your mental mouth, and indulging in its conjured flavor, and layering also the next word/flavor alongside, you really can begin to generate a mental approximation of whatever the reviewer was trying to communicate. It certainly doesn’t make a Paxton Shiraz taste any better—no words could possibly add anything to such a luscious deep-purple mouthful—but it absolutely leads the way to making sense of wine reviews.

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