Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino

Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino
Life is a fiasco


Wizards of Winespeak

My views on modern wine critics may have seemed less than gracious up till now. See the post, My Life in Wine: the Good, the Bad, and the Bubbly (9 January 2011). So I’d like to take a closer, more insightful look at the work of taster-raters.

Devotees of wine have devised lexicons to describe colors, aromas, flavors, textures, and more. Such terms analogize sensations in ways that supposedly give professionals a frame of reference and aspirants a guide to character traits. I’ll admit to having borrowed some of the clich├ęs myself before limiting my imagination to the drearily prosaic confines of fermented grapes.

Wine criticism is a competitive field in which taster-raters pack columns, newsletters, and—these days especially—blogs with points and notes. In their quests for fans and fame, some have shown extraordinary creative flair in describing wines. I’ve surfed the net for original, poetic, bizarre, and outrageous examples of the cutting-edge lingo created by these wizards of winespeak.

To tell the truth, some of the terminology baffles me. But what do I know? Mr. Slow Learner was the last to grasp the genius of the likes of Andy Warhol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dan Brown, Lady Gaga. It might even be that behind the bodacious bylines of the blogosphere lurks winedom’s new Emperor or Big Brother.

Here’s a sampling of winespeak descriptive terms in no particular order: prickly pear juice; witch hazel; earthy mushrooms; creosote; tamarillo; animal gaminess; pomegranate; Christmas cake; mulch; showy nose; medicinal nose; brooding nose; nutty nose; damp fur; minerally accented red plum; pungent minty plums, balsamic marzipan; beefy-textured chestnut; cream soda; fried flowers; butcher shop smells; beef blood; pigeon blood; grilled bacon; blood sausage; incense; India ink; squid ink; linseed oil; hairspray; cherry Jell-O; cracked green peppercorns; Acapulco sunsets; graphite shavings; pink panty punch; orange zest; crystallized ginger; musk; jammy bramble fruit; coal dust; cheesy; cherry-berry; spice box; diesel; smoky plum; shoe polish; huckleberry; weedy; leafy; lead pencil; truffly underbrush; camphor; cotton candy; smoky meat; oriental spices; quince; tree bark; gooseberry; warm suet pudding; the Elephant & Castle tube station.

But perhaps I’ve done our gurus a disservice by listing these terms out of context. Let me try to right this wrong by composing a hypothetical description of a wine employing some of the above terminology in a style that I can only hope to be worthy of a tried-and-true taster-rater. When it comes to describing wines, I’ll admit to being a bit rusty. But, what the hell, here goes:

Color: Deep ruby tamarillo and pigeon blood hues underscore cherry Jell-O tones melding with ripe red gooseberry and chokecherries over a swirly shadow of squid ink. On the rim, hints of pink panty punch, pomegranate, Acapulco sunsets.

Bouquet: Knockout, in-your-face nose opens onto a potpourri of fruity-leathery-tobacco-spicebox scents with undertones of creosote, butcher shop smells, mulch, shoe polish and diesel. A second swirl and sniff reveals deep, brooding qualities, vaguely medicinal, with hints of shaved graphite, earthy mushrooms, smoky meat, tree bark, and (a real surprise) warm suet pudding.

Palate: Supercharged upfront zing zaps the tongue with ripe cherry-berry sensations of minerally accented red plum, beef blood, jammy bramble fruit, huckleberry, and beefy-textured chestnut before gliding into the mid-mouth with a cream soda-like lift accented by orange zest, fried flowers, grilled bacon, incense, and cotton candy. I can’t emphasize enough the nearly interminable finish of this wine with its subtle undertones of truffly underbrush, musk, mulch, and camphor.

Conclusion: This wine from a somewhat offbeat vintage seems too green to hang a posterity tag on. Tentative score: 73 ++. Considerations: could surprise with age: 20-150 years.

Note to skeptical possessors of this €220 bottle. If you have the patience to let it slumber in the cellar for a couple of decades—and the fortune to live a long and happy life—you might find it taking on the persimmony-dried apricoty plushness of the grandiose 1850 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho. Or, though this is a real long shot, the singularity of the Opimian vintage of the Roman Falernium (121 BC, would you believe?). I’ve never had the privilege of tasting that classic, but to judge by accolades showered upon it by much more than highly reliable sources—Pliny the Elder, Cicero, Julius Caesar himself!—it was to die for.

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