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The Wonderful, Wacky, Sweaty, Stinky World of Wine Descriptions

Posted on | July 8, 2011 | Written by Josh Rubenstein | 2 Comments

Angel sweat strained through diamond mesh into a platinum tureen hammered smooth by three former Presidents and the current Pope. Stored in an oak barrel made from the Tree of Life, bottled by billionaires, and poured into your glass by a scientist or poet.

On the palate, a pure, clean meatiness emerges, like butchering a meadow-fed lamb, bitter-sweet flowers flying forth in an inner-mouth profusion.

Lychee fruit looks weird the first time you see it too.

One of these wine descriptions is from The Wine Advocate’s review of DRC 2005 Romanee Conti.  The other is from comedian Patton Oswalt’s mock wine list in his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. You can probably guess which is which. More germane, which wine sounds better? And is Oswalt suggesting that perhaps we wine maniacs take wine description too far?  I personally don’t believe such a thing is possible!

Do popular fine wine terms such as “sweaty saddle,” “baby’s vomit,” or “cat’s pee” sound like seductive emanations from your glass?  Of course not, but I think that’s part of what makes sharing wine so much fun.  No one’s necessarily right, and often the “least educated” has the most creative idea of what’s happening in the glass.  As a wine guy, I must admit that I most often hear incredibly accurate and innovative descriptions following the phrase “I don’t know much about wine so am probably way off, but….” I’m sure the first person to start using the word “hedonistic” got a few funny looks.

When I entered the wine trade, I understood that while I may not identify with many of the generally accepted terms, they served a purpose of unification among wine lovers.  Then, upon moving to Hong Kong, I became more aware of the challenge of identifying common descriptors for folks who’ve never actually tasted or smelled Western fruits or spices–and I also became aware of the challenge of hearing a wine described in terms of tea, lychees and star fruit.  I discovered that I love hearing a wine I’ve understood through Western culture now described using Eastern influences.

Given that Chinese wine lovers are such as large part of the wine buying community there’s a strong argument for using Eastern aromas and flavors for a relatable common lingo in this part of the world.

I chatted with Debra Meiburg, a Hong Kong-based Master of Wine, about this recently, and she noted, “While it’s popular to jump on the bandwagon that Asia needs its own set of aromatic references, we need to proceed with caution.  Like it or not, there’s an international ‘language of wine’ based on loosely agreed descriptors and it would be a shame to isolate ourselves from the global conversation by creating our own wine language.”

She added, “I, too, initially struggled with unfamiliar descriptors, but eventually I began to make the connections, even if I had never tried the fruit:  ‘When I smell this tangy smell, the international community calls it passion fruit.”’

This brought to mind a study in college that absolutely blew my mind, Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, best known for the concept of “I think, therefore I am.” In it, Descartes disqualifies anything that cannot be proven beyond doubt to find what may be absolutely real.  For example, what you may identify as the color “red” for an apple, could possibly appear as what commonly call “blue” to me.  There is no certainty that an apple’s color looks the same to all of us.  We just agree to call it “red.”  The same seems to hold true for wine.  But we can speak the same language if we can commonly arrive at the same loosely agreed descriptors, as Debra notes.

Ultimately, as the wine world becomes smaller it’s certainly valuable for us all to have common ground somehow.  It helps us to relate and share our love for wine.  I hope we all remember to have the confidence to share what comes to mind, common or not, and will always find hearing the most insane, yet accurate, descriptors to be one of the best ways to keep wine so much fun.  After all, drinking wine, as well as talking about it, is something we should enjoy.


2 Responses to “The Wonderful, Wacky, Sweaty, Stinky World of Wine Descriptions”

  1. Debra Meiburg MW
    July 8th, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

    Well put Josh! Thanks for tackling the topic with a flair!

  2. Tea Beyond
    July 10th, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    “cat’s pee”…hahahaha…funny! one time someone told me that he bought some green tea at a local store, but tasted like “hores pee”;)))

    Yes, there’s a huge population seeking high quality wine in Asia, even though rice wine is the most popular one.

    Very nice post!

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