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Wine and Words!!

Words have always been a source of fascination for me, and unsurprisingly, the world of wine is full of quite specific vocabulary that can seem a little pretentious at times. On my WSET course I have been surprised to find out just how difficult it is to describe a wine using ‘official’ terminology, and whilst it has been immensely helpful training my palate to look for certain things, I can’t help but wonder if that perpetuates the sort of snobbery that people perceive around wine.

There is no denying the fact that words frame how we perceive things. Jamie Goode wrote a blog about it for Wine Anorak, based on Lakoff’s linguistics studies. I did a wine tasting evening for some parents at a local school recently, and asked them to guess the prices of each of the wines. This was partly to provoke a bit of discussion and also partly to, firstly see if they had a perception of our shop as being ‘expensive’; and secondly break that down. What surprised me though is that almost every single person in the room had wildly overestimated the price of the red wines, and most had seriously underestimated the price of the whites. This was no reflection on the quality of the wine, but rather - it seems - a decision subtly motivated by my own choice of language. My use of ‘rich’, ‘soft’ and ‘heady’ which accompanied the reds, but weren’t really appropriate for the whites, had given everyone the impression that they were really expensive bottles - which they weren’t.

Most people come into the shop with a frame already in mind: “I like Shiraz”, for example. The fact is, if I presented them a Syrah they’d probably not give it a second’s thought despite them being the same grape. Shiraz and Syrah have both gained different connotations even though the difference is almost entirely down to climate and not the grape. A useful distinction? Perhaps. Perhaps that’s why French labels very rarely show the grape variety, but then again, French labels are usually framed by other things, such as the Appellation, or terms such as Grand Cru.

Back on my WSET course, all of us eager WSET students would sit swirling our glasses, combing through the list of official terminology and hoping that by picking a few of them out we might at least get a few points. It was incredible though how when somebody said “I think I’m getting peach”, everyone else suddenly went “oh yeah, I think you’re right!”. Framing? Probably.

So what’s the solution? Does it need one? We need a way to vocalise how we feel about wine, and specific terminology can give us a tangible framework to base our largely arbitrary findings on. But it can also create an impenetrable air of mystery which can force us to feel very differently about a wine, even intimidate us into shunning one in the first place. Maybe we should all just step back, take a quiet moment and truly savour the wine, and understand what’s in the glass, who made it, and the sensory experience it’s giving us, rather than desperately wracking our brains for the ‘right’ word.
If I could I’d take all the labels off of the bottles in the shop and just give people something I think they’d like - but perhaps that’s an idea for another day.


David Weale - newly initiated natural wine nut and shop dude at Buon Vino!