Demystifying the Lingo
by Chelle Christy
Have you ever licked the sweat from the belly of a crocodile? Or smelt the aroma of an exploding moonbeam? What about observed the color of Saturn's fifth moon after a lunar dust storm during an eclipse? Most of us have not. I kid you not though, these are just some of the bizarre tasting notes I have had the pleasure of reading in the past. As fun and entertaining as they are, they never did much to describe the wine to me. So why do some wine writers insist on using such indescribable images, strange jargon and weird metaphors?
That's not to say that jargon is unnecessary when describing wines, nor that metaphors should not be used. Jargon and metaphors are actually quite useful because getting across the idea of a taste or a smell is not always easy. But they should be used wisely. For example, take the very common term buttery, primarily used to describe chardonnay. The term is not literal; it does not imply that the wine is actually made of butter, or in fact tastes like butter. But it does conjure up certain images. To me, it invokes more of a feeling than a taste; it describes the almost creamy or oily feeling a wine sometimes has on my tongue. Likewise, the earthy tones I detect in a particular Shiraz do not imply the wine tastes like dirt (or that I eat soil on a regular basis), more that it leaves me the image of a plowed field or a planted vegetable garden.
Again, a lot of these descriptions hinge on the life experiences of both the writer and the reader. You know that feeling, a song comes on the radio and all of a sudden your mind takes you back to a specific moment, a moment you somehow associate with the music. But not everyone has the same memory or reaction to that song. It may invoke different thoughts to someone else, or none at all. Similarly, you should be careful when describing wine to use images or words that are not necessarily peculiar only to your life. Recently, I went to dinner with friends and shared a lovely Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Immediately the wine reminded me of crushed ants (Australian ants have a very distinct acidic odor (formic acid) and the smell is commonplace, particularly at picnics). As obvious as it was to me, my mainland companions had no idea what I was talking about. The moral of the story? Always keep in mind the people with whom you are sharing your views; the aroma of wet hay would be lost on a complete urbanite.
I was going to include a glossary of wine speak terms here but I have decided not to for two main reasons. First, such a list, though probably useful, would be quite dry and take up far too much space in this column. Second, although some people may print it out with the same intention they printed the Glossary of Australian Slang or World's Worst Disasters, most likely the list would be forgotten and end up simply gathering dust. So instead, I will give definitions of terms during the reviews. That way, you can see their use in context and we can get onto the task at hand - chatting about wines!