Is the wine trade trying to pull the wool over our eyes? Some time ago an article in The New York Times began, “With a few sniffs and a couple of swishes of the tongue, a wine connoisseur can distinguish the gentle floral notes of a Nuits-St.Georges, say, or the subtle berry and chocolate overtones of a Charmes-Chambertin . . .”
Really? Now, I know that experienced tasters really can distinguish one Burgundy vintage from another but, seriously, what’s all this stuff about a wine tasting or smelling like chocolate? Supposing a dozen people like you and me were given a glass of any red wine at the a blindfold tasting. For how many of us do you suppose chocolate would spring to mind?
But wait, there’s more. There seems to be a growing habit of this giving of ludicrous descriptions of the aromas and tastes of wine. Here are a few recent examples. I’ve just received a catalogue from a classy wine club that describes a Pinot Noir as having a nose that’s “rich with red cherry . . . smoky saddle leather and hints of cocoa.”
Then there’s an article on Italian wines again in the New York Times, in which a critic compares the nose of one vintage with “aromas of tobacco, tar and (again) leather.” Or how about this? In a display card in an upscale wine store on Columbus Avenue a few weeks ago, an elegant little display card touted a Cabinet Sauvignon from Australia as having “a balance of aromas of raspberry jam and chocolate, with a hint of eucalyptus. Yes, it really did say raspberry jam!
Among the most ridiculous comparisons a short while ago was in a whole-page newspaper advertisement from one of the biggest wine merchants in the North East. They included -- I swear this -- pepper, wood, scorched earth, stones, gravel, and even “hints of meat.”
Ok, I’ll go along with some berry and flower-like flavors, and maybe a New York store’s recent use of “apple and citrus.” But chocolate again? Gravel? Smoky saddle leather? Scorched earth? Tar? Tobacco? Raspberry jam? And now meat? Get real!
I love wine, though I certainly wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur. I’m retired, and being an oenophile costs money, which isn’t as abundant as it used to be. Nowadays, I rarely spend much more than twelve dollars on a fairly ordinare Chardonnay or Merlot, but I did get some education in wine during my working days. A few times I found myself a guest of individuals who thought nothing of spending several hundred dollars of their employer’s or someone else's money for a single bottle of claret at Le Cirque, or the sadly defunct Lutèce, or other upper-crust Manhattan eateries. I confess that, to this member of the bourgeoisie, a $300 bottle of wine at Morton’s had little more character or distinction to me than one costing $28 at some more reasonably priced place. And when it comes to retail prices, there are some perfectly drinkable reds that retail at half that price from Chile and Argentina.
A few weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about the 60th session in London of the Oxford and Cambridge Varsity Wine-Tasting Competition, in which eight men and eight women students from Britain and the U.S. and also from China, Poland, the Netherlands and Brunei tasted twelve unmarked wines and were expected to identify the grape, country of origin, region, subregion and taste characteristics of each. Among the extraordinary descriptions from these experts were “coconut,” “tobacco leaf, quince, musk, and even “a horse manure character.” Oxford University were declared the winners, but the article left out what I would have thought to be the most important information of all -- how much did they get right, and how much wrong?
I read somewhere that a wine merchant in Chicago, instead of using the silly cocoa, leather and tobacco ‘winespeak,’ had started to compare his wines with famous celebrities. For example, one smooth, dark red wine (no doubt with excellent body) was apparently labeled “Naomi Campbell in Fur.” The possibilities seem endless. It wouldn’t be one bit less informative than “horse manure.”
And it would surely be a lot more fun.