The word on wine

Drink

These days there is such a proliferation of terms to describe wine that the layman may be forgiven for taking a sip of Chateau-Lafite and giving rein to a burst of stream-of-consciousness nonsense. "Barrowloads of apples," he might proclaim without the least idea that he was getting it all wrong, "aroma of smouldering tyres, ah yes, and there's a touch of over-ripe yarn in the bouquet and a tinge of red plague-sore circa 1666 in the legs."

Winespeak has got so hyperbolic it's easy to believe that no one knows what they're talking about. But they do. Describing wine is a science and an art; a whole, complex, utterly precise vocabulary has developed around it. Thousands, of ordinary words such as "strawberry" and "cedar" have been hijacked for the purpose of describing the stuff in your glass.

Sometimes I long for the days when wine books might advise in simple terms, not unlike George Rainbird's 1963 Pocket Book of Wine: "You will, I hope, have noticed," he says about halfway through the book, "that I try to avoid what I call wine jargon." Instead he holds forth in an avuncular, cravat-ish way: "This one is very good," he will say, before going on to discuss "the charming wines of the Loire".

So when did we become so fulsomely precise in our wine terminology? One wine expert I have spoken to thinks the habit of talking about wine in terms of sundry fruit, flowers and vegetables has become much more widely disseminated in the past 30 years, but he refers me to an obscure book, revered by wine connoisseurs and, though still in print, difficult to get hold of. It is The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud.

Peynaud knows everything. He says that people began to talk about wine when it was first drunk. Greek literature boasts about 100 terms used to describe wine. He notes that "in 1415 wines were already being described as 'good, clean, honest and commercial'," which sounds terribly modern. Yet many writers paid more attention to drunkenness and wine's effect on the senses. Francois Rabelais, master of language and the innovative turn of phrase, constantly praised wine but never once attempted to describe its taste. Like George Rainbird, he would rely on adjectives such as "delicious" or "tasty". If he was feeling particularly impressed, he might say "god-like". But that was it.

Only in the 18th century did wine vocabulary increase a little. Peynaud reports that the agronomist Maupin was, by 1780, using about 40 tasting words. By 1832, a publication by the much-lauded A Jullien had expanded this to 70 (and the word "tannin" first appears). By the turn of the century, a dictionary listed 180. This increase coincided with the making of better wine - the tastier and more refined it was, the more there was to say about it. Yet still wine was mostly talked about in terms of its structure - its bitterness, its body, its colour, its alcohol content and so on.

When it comes to modern winespeak, the expert Jules Chauvet is the culprit. In 1966, in the heart of Burgundy, he gave a dazzling performance, describing, for the first time to non-Burgundians, bouquet using a complex range of images - referring, for example, to fine leather from Russia and Morocco. Such a distinction! Would you recognise the difference in provenance of leather when you stuck your nose in a glass? Wine experts would. But why rely on such vivid but peculiar terminology which is hard (though not impossible) to regulate?

Because the alternative - to refer to aromas by their long chemical names - is too difficult and less pleasing. Winespeak appeals to the senses and the imagination, even if most of us are unable to engage with the coded precision of each definition.

Admire the master of wine's olfactory prowess. He lives in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of impossible word games. How can he ever win? As Peynaud himself points out, 1978 Malartic-Lagraviere smells of red roses but "each rose variety has its own fragrance and I have read that some 20 different roses have been distinguished by the approximate smell they evoke: tarragon, pepper, hay, French marigold, melon, apricot . . ." Best just to stick to drinking, I think.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special