Technology has conquered two of the five senses: sound and sight. What about the other three?
How do you describe a wine in words?
Shoba Narayan suggests we reach into our own heritage: A Chenin blanc could be called “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo”
The killer app, at least in the fields of wine, perfume, cheese, or anything that relies on olfactory and gustatory sensations, will have nothing to do with curing male baldness. The killer app for wine and perfume will be the ability to transport scent and taste through cyberspace. If you could click on a wine bottle that is displayed on your computer and smell the aroma of the wine it contains, all the wine descriptions that we struggle to come up with will be rendered useless in an instant.
There are some things that words have trouble conveying. What Arthur Schopenhauer said about “the inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable”, could well apply to the scent and taste of an aged Pinot Noir; complex fragrances, be it from Roja Dove, Byredo or Dior; unpasteurized cheeses; or to come back to Schopenhauer’s quote, the sound of the children’s choir at an old church in Goa at dusk. These are things that have to be experienced in person. When you try to convey the experience to someone who wasn’t there, you grasp unsuccessfully at words.
As a species, we have gotten very good at describing what we see, but even after 100,000 years of practice, we haven’t come up with the proper way to communicate things that we experience through our other senses. Music-streaming apps have simplified the audio part of it. Nowadays, if we want to share with friends abroad the ecstasy of listening to Mukhtiyar Ali’s Sufi music, we simply send them a YouTube, SoundCloud or Spotify link. That hasn’t happened for taste and smell. How do you convey the vibrant masculinity of a Barolo? Even saying this sounds pretentious and sexist.
This, then, is the conundrum for wine lovers: How do you convey the taste of a favourite wine to a friend who lives far away? For now, words, feeble as they are, will have to do. And they aren’t doing their job well at all; witness the finger-pointing and controversy over wine terms.
The problem gets worse because words frame and manipulate the wine-drinking experience, as Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s graduate school of business in the US, knows very well. Prof. Shiv has conducted numerous studies on how descriptions affect our experience of the wine. In one famous study, he hooked up subjects to an MRI machine and gave them some wine to drink (now that’s a study I would like to participate in). When he told them that the wine was expensive, the pleasure receptors of the brain lit up. The subjects didn’t merely think that they enjoyed the expensive wine more; their bodies and brains behaved as if they did. To quote the paper, “Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.” The next time you pour a friend a glass of red wine, tell her that it is a Château Margaux. The simple statement will enhance her pleasure at having it.
How then to describe wine? Two columnists have come up with solutions and written books in the process. The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague, known for her no-nonsense approach to wine, says you need but five words to describe all wines: acidity, aroma, balance, structure and texture. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer says something similar but uses seven words: insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. While I love Teague’s light-hearted columns, her words don’t help me very much. Neither do Kramer’s. They are far too broad to be useful.
//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.jsI have a few terms that I use to jog my scent and taste memory with respect to wines. Herbaceous (like Indian gooseberry, or amla), jammy (best described by a Tamil phrase, kozha-kozha) and minerally (like drinking water from a copper pot), among others.
But minerally too is a description that has come under attack. In an article published in the Australian Journal Of Grape And Wine Research in June 2013, titled “Exploring Minerality Of Burgundy Chardonnay Wines”, three scientists from the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France, studied how “wine experts conceptualize minerality and to explore whether they can judge wine minerality in a consensual way.” They concluded, “Wine experts showed strong disagreement in their minerality judgements…”
So if nobody agrees on anything, what are we to do? Are words superfluous in the wine universe? How can we convey the pleasures of a particular bottle of wine?
One sommelier quoted in Bianca Bosker’s 29 June article in The New Yorker, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?”, describes a Barolo as tasting like a “male ballet dancer”; a “Baryshnikov in a glass”, as the writer says.
If you open this door, India has oodles of poetic descriptions to fit our wines. The proverbial Elizabeth aunty, whose home-made wines are famous all over Kottayam, could describe a Malbec as having the “balance and spikiness of very good Navara (or, more correctly, Njavara rice”. Debashish babu of Kolkata could describe a particular Cabernet Sauvignon as “flabby—like the Brahmaputra in spate”. Or you could sip a Chenin blanc and say, “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo.”
We Indians have tasted wines for over 5,000 years. According to K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Sita promised to pour 1,000 jars of wine into the river Ganga in the hope of safe passage back when their exile ended. When they returned, Ram gave her maireya, a spiced wine (a ghastly concoction according to me). Their entire city was reeling with drunken orgies. Presumably, a few of the citizens described the wines that they tasted to their neighbours.
We need to reach into our history, heritage and local vocabulary to describe wines in a way that resonates and makes sense to us. Goa, with its prodigious practice in the art of living, would be a good place to start.
This is the second in a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan didn’t know that Kinvah, a local wine brand, was named after a festive drink in the Mauryan era. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org