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Poetic Licence?



A couple of days ago I started reading (nay, poring over) the Decanter supplement, with this year’s best in shows etc (husband: “You’re ogling these wines the way some women ogle pictures of Johnny Depp”). Some of the tasting notes struck me as being, well… a little fanciful. Here are a couple examples:
“… the classic quasi-visceral appeal of a great Pomerol”
“… but maturity is unlikely to subdue the wine’s diagnostic purity…”
And current favourite:
“…limpid and open, with high-optic flavours… and some stony sobriety lurking below”.
Now, I’m not a stranger to the magic of words - I even take a leaf out of Humpty Dumpty’s book sometimes, and make them mean what I want them to mean. But seriously? “high-optic flavour”?? Do they simply mean “focused”? And “quasi-visceral”?? - it either is or isn’t visceral! Is this just an exercise in verbosity?
At times I wonder if the world of wine writers is littered with failed poets.

Does anyone else come across a note that, well… struck a false note…? :thinking:

Current Wine Descriptors
Weekend drinking thread [3-5 Aug]

I was wondering how often wine descriptions include the use of things that people have never actually tried, or haven’t tried for years.
For example SB tasting of nettles. I’ve used this myself but have never actually eaten nettles at all. There are many others - “stones”, no, don’t eat them. “Flinty”, no don’t eat flint either. “Leather”, don’t eat much of that. And so on.
I suppose this is more to do with smell, or perhaps a shared understanding of how things might taste. A bit off your theme of overblown language, but just came to mind.


Oh, I totally agree, @Andy999! Some descriptors are the close approximations, as you say, of what we think things smell/taste like. I know the smell of a leather handbag - especially a new one, so I can relate to that note. I can almost get the ‘ivy and plant sap’ that one of the Decanter notes included. I don’t recall actively smelling a plant sap, let alone specifically an ivy’s sap, but I can sort of get what the writer is trying to say (something green, a bit ‘sticky’ and fresh… that sort of thing).

What I struggle with is obscure language, which - to my mind- is aimed to sound knowledgeable and profound; but for me, it obfuscates what it tries to elucidate.
There! I used some big silly words too! :smiley:


The thing about the flint/graphite descriptions that I find funny is that they are things that are not only naturally tasteless, but also naturally odourless! People think the smell of pencil shavings is the smell of graphite, but it’s just the smell of the wood. Similarly, if a piece of flint smells of anything, it’s due to microbes on the surface, rather than the rock itself (so saying “wet stones” is probably a better option than plumping for a meaninglessly specific rock/mineral). But I do sympathize with writers trying to find words to explain the subtle differences between 20 different Sauvignon Blancs!


I actually quite like this! Perhaps the writer has a scientific background? After all, there are only so many times one can use the word “varietal”. I may start throwing it in in everyday conversation, if only to obfuscate!


Last night’s claret had low-optic flavours, a number of diagnostic impurities and left me in a state of stony non-sobriety because it was quasi-dead on arrival :trophy:

As for the stones, I’ve always imagined that the WSET diploma has a module which includes rock-licking exercises, to differentiate between the tastes of igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic…


“high optic flavours” - you can tell what it will taste like just by looking? Or perhaps a wine equivalent of “top-shelf” tequila?

“quasi-visceral” - I could tell you but I’d have to quasi-kill you.


I don’t use “flinty” myself, but people say that the term refers to the smoke from a struck flint, which is actually due to sulphur within the rock. So “flinty” smells in wine are probably due to reduction.

Chalk is also a strange one. The stuff we (used to) write on blackboards with is actually gypsum, which is used in plaster of Paris - not chalk at all. But some people refer to chalk sticks when explaining a chalky sensation in wine.


I associate challkiness with a certain powderiness of tannins, which is more a texture than a taste.


Without wishing to over-intellectualise, I think the issues are -

a) the difficulties of language to accurately describe tastes and flavours
b) the subjectivity of those tastes and flavours
c) our expectations of precision in language.

Contradictory and vague terms are used in all areas of life but they are understandable e.g. “Don’t worry, there’ll be another bus in a minute.” is not meant literally and is not taken literally, by most people. But we accept the statement as being informative.
Should we look at the wine descriptors in this way?


Once I latch onto a term, I have a tendancy to overuse it in my own notes. Is this because I keep finding the same flavours or is it heuristics in play?

I do feel sorry for professional note writers. What must it be like, having to work through 30-70 near-identical wines and come up with something useful to differentiate them for us?

That said, here is my all time tasting note bugbear:


Definition: tasty.


I think you’re raising some fine points here, @wineyg! Saussure would have approved. Language can be elusive and imprecise- especially when trying to capture a subjective sensation. So yes, we resort to metaphors or approximations to point us in general direction.
My problem is that if we wish to decode wine notes, we need to have some sort of shared idea of what these metaphors relate to. Someone’s esoteric internal view isn’t going to help me, and using fanciful or very personal language only obsucres things.
But I agree with everyone- what a difficult job it is, to try and differentiate between so many wines, in what is essentially a subjective experience. Hope they’re paid well for it. Or in kind. :wink:


I know what you mean, but it’s difficult to compare a turn of phrase to something that’s intended to convey a description and evaluation of an item that the reader has not experienced. And actually there is something mildly informative about ‘there’ll be another bus in a minute’. It’s a reassuring statement that basically says ‘all is not lost - more buses exist that go in that direction’. The wine review comments that @inbar quoted earlier are, as far as I can tell, entirely useless.

…limpid and open, with high-optic flavours… and some stony sobriety lurking below

As a consumer, this actually tells me nothing about the wine. It’s just chucking words on a page as far as I’m concerned. I couldn’t even tell you with confidence what colour that wine would be.

Going back to @Leah’s tasting notes from the press tasting she attended a few months ago, there was some flowery language there, but actually they provided context, some comparison, some kind of point of reference to give you an idea of whether this might be a wine you’d be interested in. I don’t get any of that from the Decanter comments. They just felt like a journalist trying to show off.


I think the problem is that many tasting terms are NOT informative. Many tasters will have a pretty firm idea about what is meant by mineral terms for example, but the problem is that those tasters ideas can be very different. This was illustrated by the results of a workshop for MWs where there was little agreement between the MWs about the degree of minerality in several wines. I can try to dig out details in anyone cares.

Yes, language is difficult to use to describe wines, but I don’t think it helps to bandy words around that do not communicate. We used to have tasting notes, particularly from the French I think, about wines being like pretty girls on a summer’s day. Then at some point in the late 90s people suddenly started describing wines in terms of minerals. IMO this is not progress (apart from the PC angle); it is replacing one fashion with another.

I now see @Inbar just wrote “My problem is that if we wish to decode wine notes, we need to have some sort of shared idea of what these metaphors relate to. Someone’s esoteric internal view isn’t going to help me, and using fanciful or very personal language only obsucres things.” Precisely so!


Incidentally, there is a valid view that a major purpose of a tasting note is to entertain, that they are a form of literature rather than something that has the goal of actually conveying information about a wine. If that is how you view them, then fair enough, put whatever you want in them. That view also touches on the dilemma of critics who are writing 100 tasting notes of Sauvignon Blancs, perhaps. They feel the need to entertain, even if they do all taste like cats’ pee.

But personally if I want poetic language I’ll get it elsewhere - in a poem for example.


What an interesting set of responses!

The WSET courses have attempted to formalise tasting descriptors - and for this they must be applauded. How do you award marks otherwise?

SteveSlatcher’s comment about differentiation between 100 SB’s is very pertinent. I am assuming we are all passionate amateurs but what must it be like to taste and comment upon wines every day of your life? It’s a job and, like all jobs, can be repetitive.

However, I do have an issue with what appear to be lazy and cliched observations. And yes, BargainBob, as well as those that are so imprecise as to be meaningless in terms of communicating some idea.

There must be a dissertation here somewhere! Or maybe a three year degree course?.


I saw the use of linoleum used as a reference once as if we can all remeber the last time we had a lump with an anti pasta starter, animal fur ? unctuosity ? is there such a word, you could fill pages with the nonsense used to describe wines, but of course most of it comes from the fact that the people who use this languag ehave run out of adjectives so invent them.
Up to 100 tastings in a day must put most tasters however “careful” in the p****d category and who can blame them for seeing something that doesn’t exist, …


James Thurber said it all with his 1937 cartoon: ‘It’s a naive domestic Burgendy without any breeding but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.’


The biggest bug bear for me is the use of geometry in tasting notes, like round, linear, angular, four-square…

I don’t recall learning what different shapes taste like at school, but then again I was educated in Essex.


While I take your point, those terms describe a character rather than a flavour of a wine and at least the first two can be quite informative when used correctly. I’ve never really understood what ‘four square’ means. A bit of an all rounder perhaps?

We use terms such as heavy and full, again both can be useful descriptors but don’t refer to a flavour

I sometimes really struggle to pinpoint what a wine tastes like. Had a lovely Chianti with dinner last night and the harder I thought the more I struggled. If I had made notes, they probably would have read “nice red wine” or similar… I’d order it again without hesitation though