Guest post from Matt Walls: Why wine talk makes people feel uncomfortable

Matt Walls writes:

The nose and mouth can sometimes be a little vague in the way they try  and tell us what they’re sensing. Smell and taste are not as powerful or precise in their function as sight or touch. So it helps to talk about what you are smelling or tasting. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on a particular smell, or don’t even notice one that is staring you in the face until someone mentions it. People often suspect that a lot of bullshit is talked about wine. I’ve encountered some hilarious descriptions of wines when marketing departments have strayed from describing actual flavours into the realms of poetic whimsy. But most of the time, it’s not what is said that’s the problem, just the way it is said.

Why wine talk makes people feel uncomfortable

1.Eccentric wine commentators

For some reason, wine has had more than its fair share of wacky commentators over the years, but you really don’t have to wear a monocle and bark in rhyming couplets to talk about it. A British critic still invoked today starred on a 1980s-90s BBC TV show called Food and Drink. It was a great show that helped make food and wine more accessible for a lot of people, but a presenter called Jilly Goolden offered some ebullient, vivid and occasionally baffling descriptions of what she tasted. Few, if any, other programmes at the time featured wine, so it was many people’s only experience of hearing anyone talk about it. Goolden’s slightly bizarre delivery and descriptions frightened some people away, yet she’s not the world’s only wine eccentric. I suppose a glass of red liquid on a TV screen isn’t that interesting without someone trying to convey the aromas and flavours that make it special. But don’t worry: talking about wine doesn’t make you batty. That’s all in the delivery. And the bow ties.

2.It’s a bit ‘posh’

Wine is sometimes considered one of the last bastions of the middle and upper classes. This is a pretty outdated point of view. Truth is, most wine is bought at the supermarket during the weekly shopping expedition alongside the baked beans and toilet roll – not brought up from the cellar by Jeeves to accompany  truffled swan. Fifty years ago, all food or drink shipped over from abroad was a luxury, but nowadays a bottle of great wine needn’t cost any more than a night down the pub. Wine is something for everyone to enjoy;

those who think it’s elitist should spend a night on the town with some Australian winemakers.

3.Not knowing which terms to use

For most wine drunk on a day-to-day basis, we only need to use fairly simple terms. Is it sweet or dry? Is it high in acidity? Does it have a lot of tannin? Can you detect any oak flavours? What other flavours do you taste: just fruit flavours, or others like nuts, herbs, spices?

To begin with, when trying to identify particular elements, it can feel odd saying you taste apples, pears and melons in a glass of wine; after all, it’s made of grapes. But when it ages in bottle or barrel, the various constituents in a wine react with each other, creating new flavour compounds that can be exactly the same as those found in other plants or foods. So, when you’re tasting a wine and you can taste strawberries, it may not be the case that the wine simply tastes like strawberries; in all likelihood you’re tasting the very same flavour compound actually found in a strawberry. So, if you ever feel self-conscious or silly naming some of the various flavours you’re getting – don’t. Chances are, you are actually tasting them.

When drawing conclusions about wine, think BLIC: Balance, Length, Intensity, Complexity. What’s the overall balance of all the wine’s elements? How long does the flavour linger in the mouth? How intense are the flavours and aromas? And how many identifiable aromas and flavours can you find – i.e. how complex is it? These are the criteria to think about when judging wine quality.

4.‘Getting it wrong’

Some people avoid talking about wine for fear of ‘getting it wrong’. We’ve all tasted hundreds of different flavours in different foods and drinks, and we trust our palates normally. Wine is no different, and there’s no reason to doubt our sense of taste. Making a judgment about the sugar, acidity or alcohol levels in a wine is no more difficult than judging the salt, vinegar or greasiness levels in a bag of chips. It’s a myth that you need some kind of special abilities to be able to taste and enjoy wine. If you have a nose and a mouth, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy it just as much as anyone else.

As for using the ‘wrong’ word to describe a wine, stick to natural flavours and you’ll be fine. Name any fruit, vegetable, herb, spice or animal product and there’ll be a wine out there somewhere that contains that flavour. Sometimes it’s fun to use random words, but if you’re really trying to communicate, it’s easier to compare flavours and aromas to other types of food or drink. And as for judging quality levels, don’t forget that it’s just a matter of taste. When all is said and done, it’s not easy to buy a genuinely dreadful wine these days. Once in a while you might get a bottle that isn’t exactly what you expected, but that’s all part of the fun.

This an exclusive extract from Matt’s forthcoming book, Drink Me! How to choose, taste and enjoy wine, published by Quadrille in May 2012.

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