Thursday 22 September 2016

Jefford Redux: Montepulciano D'Abruzzo

So PK nudges me in the direction of a recent, unexpectedly strait-laced, article by Andrew Jefford on the importance of writing comprehensible taster's notes. This seems fair enough, and I can't fault Mr. Jefford's line of argument, but it doesn't stop there: the article contains, nested within it, an even more surprising piece of self-admonition, a great chunk of humility centering around the tendency of most wine writers to write badly and affectedly - and containing this mea culpa from Jefford himself: 'The language of tasting notes is practically unhelpful, and at best seen as "bulls**t". I've often thought this myself; indeed I feel uneasy for having based my career in part on it.'

Well. Now I hardly know which way to turn, especially since I once took a petulant swipe at Mr. Jefford for writing (among other things) this, about a Merlot: 'The 2009 brims with richness (cream, vellum, faded roses) and thick-textured, late-Romantic, Rosenkavalier-like decadence'. There you go. Scroll forward a year or so and he's positively hectic with remorse, declaring that 'Most wine descriptions possess zero literary merit', with the result that 'You end up with wine nerds writing for wine nerds, in an excitable, echo-filled ghetto'. Well, of course: most wine writing is a kind of anti-writing, a resistence to sense, but what a mixed-up age we live in, that Andrew Jefford should promote the idea that winespeak is a bad thing.

Back I go to the original piece - How to write wine tasting notes - my heart full of confused hope. And yes, Mr. Jefford, Mr. Rosenkavalier, is sober and to the point - No fruit salad, he warns us at the start, and he's right. Be partisan is another of his injunctions, but this amounts to not much more than the assertion that If you like it, make sure we know that, and why. Which is borderline gnomic and only gets me so far, but at least it's plain-spoken. The thing concludes with another link, this time to a Berry Bros. & Rudd-related guide, hiding under the sublimely commonplace headline How to understand wine.

This, in turn, and to my growing dismay, deals with really basic stuff, stuff even I have heard of although never properly mastered, stuff like acidity, fruit, alcohol, tannins - I mean, aren't we implicitly meant to be familiar with these concepts, so familiar that we can dispense with them altogether and start reaching for the thick textures and the faded roses? What, exactly, is going on here? Was the dial of wine appreciation reset while I was looking the other way, and now stands somewhere in the mid-1960s, a time when no-one knew anything about wine - no-one except a handful of the rich and/or privileged, people who embraced terms such as conoisseurship and cellar, terms so comically fusty only PK still feels comfortable with them?

I return once again to Jefford's How to write wine tasting notes, armed with an averagely loathsome Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, acquired from somewhere. The usual criteria: screwtop, 13%, price as near £5 as I can make it, hallucinatory copywriter's drivel on the label - A rich red wine with layer upon layer of damson and morello cherry flavours. One of those.

I test the Jefford system. 1: No fruit salad. Analogical descriptors are useful - if used in moderation. Limit yourself to half a dozen at most. Okay: it's kind of harsh and fruity, like a factory-made apple and blackberry pie. 2: Remember the structure. There is no structure, so far as I can see, just a mainstream whoof followed by an abiding sense of loss. 3: Balance is all. See 2. 4: Be partisan. I love this kind of wine, principally because it's relatively cheap and available. 5: Be comprehensive. I've mentioned the screwtop, the price range, the copy on the label, what else is there? Tell us its past and future, Jefford suggests, but this is a wine without either, only a coarse and unedifying present, perhaps a hint of stainless steel containers, the poetry of pipework and tanker trucks. 6: What else? See 5. And that's it, I'm done. 

Still, I think Jefford is onto something, here. Given the mixture of snobbery and pedantry that pervades most wine appreciation, I can't see his revisonist, back-to-basics ethos gaining much traction, but we must hope. After all, it's human nature to discard old cultures in favour of new. What if we called the new approach, Brutalist Wine Writing? It's got a ring to it, it sounds as if it means business. No, New Brutalist Wine Writing, that's better. If it was a magazine, I'd buy it.


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