Why are we so scared to talk about wine and share our thoughts about what we taste? This continues to be a perpetual source of confusion for me and an interesting puzzle in itself, but I do not think it is entirely mysterious. After all, what we taste is subjective, is it not?
I have taken up the challenge to answer this question, spending my time uncovering our individual tastes and judgements, and being the astute flâneur I am, I have formed some thoughts.
Here’s a little discussion on tasting wine…
The varietal drinker
My main observation is fairly plain: wine drinkers come in as many varieties as there are wine
grapes, ranging from the indifferent to the zealously opinionated.
But what I truly think is that those indifferent about wine grapes aren’t really indifferent at all – they’re just shy and uneasy about all of the wine speak that surrounds it. I don’t blame them.
But surely they have an opinion, and surely they can distinguish one taste over another, and surely that must be enough? I think individuals are justified in their puzzlement as to if there really is coffee in this
glass of Merlot? Or if this wine really is seductive and charming? There’s a curious, arguably mystical register that some wine drinkers move into when they talk about this wine stuff that puts people off.
There’s a lot of dense metaphors that raises more questions opposed to unpacking the wine in question. I have heard wines described as stylish, extroverted, racy, going so far as to the highfalutin absurd as “it will never win a race but it’s a wonderful little jogger.” Say what? In truth, I think expressions like these are the secret to truly enjoying wine, as I will explain shortly.
Above anything else, it is paramount that wine is enjoyed. This is a sentiment echoed by any proper wine enthusiast. In the everyday practice of wine drinking, at a restaurant, at a pub, whatever, one will certainly not be propositioned to evaluate wine and its tannin content, or to determine if this vintage was better than the last drop.
One should not worry about the accuracy of their perceptions when they swirl, sniff, and slurp because tasting wine – and enjoying wine – is about seeing the whole picture which is all about the experience of pleasure.
In all the tastings I’ve attended, the predominant question will always be: “do you like it?” This should not be terrifying and often all that is expected is honesty. There is no magical answer to this question other than a yes or a no (or somewhere between), and everyone has the power to form an opinion on matters of taste.
This question is generally followed with a ‘why?’ demanding some form of justification, which is the point in wine conversations that I understand why people tend to become anxious. In response, I supply two techniques for the toolkit to talk about and justify one’s preferences:
Talk about the food
That is, if there is food. And even if there isn’t, talk about it anyway. It is easy to forget that wine and food are made for each other, as food is an essential component when it comes to enjoying wine. Hearty red wine goes with steak, whereas aromatic whites go with delicate fish. Zesty Champagne pairs with the saline mineral tang of oysters and bone-dry sherry has the structured backbone to stand up against soup.
The flavours and textures of wine should either complement or cut the food that is served. For instance, drinking sharp Riesling wine with roast pork cuts the fattiness, whereas drinking buttery oaked chardonnay complements buttery sauces. These factors force us to have a palate tuned towards harmony and to consider the properties of saltiness, acidity, fattiness, and bitterness (amongst others) in our foods, and the degrees of tannin, acid, sweetness, and weight of our wines, along with its flavours. When winespeak comes down into the realm of food, it seems less mysterious and considerably more approachable.
Treat it like improvisatory theatre
A powerful statement made by John Dilworth – philosopher at Western Michigan University – suggests as an actor in an improvisatory performance, you are the ultimate master of your experience. With a bit of input from the imagination, you can tell anecdotes, form metaphors, draw comparisons, and give a sense of mood to the wine being tasted. I myself often retell the passionate joys I have experienced from pairing fruity-sweet German Riesling with spicy-herbal Thai food, describing it as a match made in heaven, or have detailed the carefree sense of joy experienced gulping chilled Rosé wine on a stifling summer day.
I have, moreover, described Alsatian gewürztraminer as rose water in a glass, and Rhône Valley wines as evocative of potpourri, lavender fields, and a faint suggestion of barnyard.
Consider that Penfolds red you had the other day: that was powerful and strong, surely you’d agree – it was as if it bottled the hot Australian sun. Tasting wine is a moment to share your personal experiences, and others enjoy this aspect of storytelling that wine is conducive of.
From this picture, as long as there is wine, then there is wine to be enjoyed with food and in the
company of others. And if we continue to remember that crucial fact, then wine tasting isn’t so
intimidating after all.