Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Vocabulary of an Art

I attended a wine seminar recently, a day-long series of discussions and tastings.  A rough day!

Seriously, it was a day the non-somelier had to train for.  For one thing, you can't swallow.  (So sad with such good wine!)  Swallow and you'd slide under the table by 10:30 a.m.  No, you have to sniff, swirl, look, sniff (nose deep in the glass), sip, slurp, chew, slosh wine round your mouth, and... spit.  Do not slobber wine down your chin nor "change the color of your shirt," as a wine guide once explained.  Still by late afternoon - 40 wines later - under the table looked like a comfy place for a nap.

(That was 40 wines plus the 5 at lunch and the 2 during the break.)  Drank some marvelous stuff!  Especially fine German whites and red Burgundys.

Aside from flavors, what was memorable was the vocab.

There is specialized terminology to describe the processes, components, and characteristics of wine.  The most impressive single word has to be terroir (pronounced "tear- war").  This means the totality of a vine's growing environment: most importantly soil and stone around its roots, but also climate and even the influence of nearby flora, like lavender or rock roses which, many experts swear, can influence the grape's flavor.  The French word terroir once meant simply "land" but is now used world-wide, gathering greater meaning as it traveled, until now it's mythic, mystic... a vinacultural version of gestalt, which in the art world means something like "the whole shebang" or the parts-making-a-greater-whole-ish-ness. Terroir.  Cool word.
Public domain image of The Fox and the Grapes

But it was words used to describe the scents and flavors of wine that fascinated.  Of course you compare a wine to another known quantity, so: "strawberry nose" (smell that is) or "raspberry jam" flavor.  Comparisons got weirder and wilder: "leather," "stewed prunes," or "Juicy Fruit gum."  (I thought: "Juicy Fruit would be much cheaper than this bottle.")  Certain flavors/scents are more valued than others in particular wines - sometimes a little oddly ranked to the uninitiated, so that, for instance, a winemaker might wince to hear "green pepper," but be happy to hear "sweat."  (One of my glasses reeked of sweat, a bit off-putting.  At a premier Saki tasting once, it was all blue-cheeses.  Ick.)

"Sweet" wouldn't thrill anyone at a serious tasting.

My absolute favorite wine taste description was:
"Elegant and clumsy... like a Ron Paul drag queen... you know, like someone so tall just shouldn't move like that..."

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