Thursday 4 September 2014

Costières de Nîmes: Language Issues

So, three things happen:

1) I finally knock off the bottle of Costières de Nîmes I acquired a couple of weeks ago. This was the one I bought on Olly Smith's recommendation - he called it 'Plump, sleek red with deep summery fruit,' also, 'Spot on for serving lightly chilled with a barbecue', a claim I couldn't double-check on account of not having a barbecue in the first place. Worth hunting down in Sainsbury's? Well, I got some spicy, chocolatey sensations, quite a belt at the back of the neck from the 14% alcohol, but nothing sleek, and not what I could honestly call fruit: more nuts and caramel, like drinking a Toblerone bar. Lesson learnt? That I don't experience the world the same way as Olly Smith. Just as well (I piously observe) we're not all the same, how dull it would be if we all had identical tastes, perhaps if I followed Olly Smith more assiduously I would learn where his favouritisms tend to lead him and adjust my expectations accordingly, and so on.

2) Then I make the fatal mistake of buying a copy of Decanter, something I think I've only done once before in my life. What's the problem with Decanter? Only that it intensifies the crisis of language which started with Olly Smith - mainly when I get to page 10 and find Andrew Jefford really letting himself go about Merlots. For instance: 'The 2009 brims with richness (cream, vellum, faded roses) and thick-textured, late-Romantic, Rosenkavalier-like decadence'; or, 'just beginning to tiptoe towards the Havana-leaf complexities the variety is justly celebrated for'; or even 'broad-chested' (of a wine, this is); and 'a similar vapoury classicism'. I am now squinting with rage. What, actually, does all this convey? To put it another way, why do wine writers give themselves over to this kind of deranged poeticism? Fauré's Requiem was once described as 'Death and Château d'Yquem'; the motoring journalist LJK Setright, who always wore his learning effortfully, wrote a poem to a Ferrari ('The red-eyed ramrod thrust of the warhorse', and more, in that vein); William Mann famously talked about the 'Chains of pandiationic clusters' in the Beatles' songs; but these are well-mapped and easily avoided embarassments. Most of the time, we can only stand so many panting metaphors (see what I mean?) before we lose the will to live. Why then do wine writers - not just Andrew Jefford - start sounding like Lawrence Durrell the moment they get close to a fancy bottle? Whose interests do they serve?

3) Helplessly browned off, I discover a little item on the BBC website, hinting at a possible new dispensation. Scientists have been working on ways to fingerprint the characteristics of wines objectively and consistently; or, as the Beeb puts it, 'Demand is growing for a more objective test - to help consumers bypass woolly terminology, protect artisan producers' intellectual property, and help auction houses detect fraud.' Clearly, the real news in this concerns the fraud aspect - Rudy Kurniawan being the most recent, biggest and boldest fraudster of them all - but this in turn throws a light on the gullibility of high-end wine buyers, which in turn throws light on the potentially misleading irrelevance of all that rococo wine writing, all that woolly terminology. Even if the characteristics of every single wine in the world could be summed up in a unique chemical barcode, it wouldn't - of course - halt the stampede for the thesaurus whenever the cork came out, and the consequent yielding to ten-dollar words. There's something about the cultural potency of wine (love, good fellowship, riot, heartbreak, social aggrandisement, escape, death, versifying, hilarity, yearning, tasty meals, song, vendetta, humiliation, action painting, all down to it) that encourages people to toss reasonable scepticism out of the window. But. Suppose, just suppose, once everyone had finished preening and phrase-making about, I don't know, a Pichon-Longueville, there was a great string of numbers, like the identifying numbers on a car chassis - well, how rational, how calming, would that be? If I were a proper wine writer, I'd say it was like moving from a Dickensian parlour crammed with dodgy antiques, into Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, but I'm not, so I won't.



  1. A Dutchman commenting on someone else's blog about the value, or otherwise, of verbose tasting notes remarked that when he blind-tasted aged Barolos he was able to correctly identify what he was tasting based not on the fact that it was reminiscent of tar and roses - because it wasn't, not really - but on the fact that it tasted like other aged Barolos of his experience. I can't comment on how Barolo is meant to taste (shame), but I agree with him, and you. Writing at length about bacon fat and black pepper isn't wild helpful when you're wondering which bottle of supermarket Syrah to spend your tenner on.

  2. Exactly - your last sentence (in particular) sums it up perfectly!

    The struggle for clarity goes on....


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