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If wine is so interesting, how come wine writing’s so dull? 

Ok, obviously not all of it, but let’s just say that I have a vested interest and wading through the majority of it fills me with trepidation rather than excitement. 

To give it some context, wine tasting notes are generally written by people who have been through the wine education system. By this I mean a programme or qualification endorsed by a governing body connected to the wine trade, and while they may know an awful lot about wine it doesn’t necessarily mean they have any experience of writing outside their field – there are exceptions of course. 

Wine writing is like any other form of writing. Just because anyone can pick up a pen, or tap on a keyboard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. It’s true that many people have a book in them, but it may be a bad book.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s some really good stuff out there but it’s usually hidden behind a paywall – where those who are perceived to do it well dispense their wisdom, from on high, and when not travelling the globe writing reports are feted at trade tastings (by an assortment of winemakers, agents and sales reps) and escorted to specially constructed, gilded thrones, carefully placed near power sockets, to apportion their scores. Which brings me neatly onto the scoring system.

For the uninitiated, wine scoring was initially out of twenty points (Broadbent, Robinson et al) moving swiftly to the American model ( Parker) where wines are scored out of one hundred points. In the latter (universally adopted) system, the majority of wines tasted rarely drops below eighty points, which roughly equates to the original system of twenty. Get my drift? Good, I love you and award you 95 points!

But what about those wines that don’t make the grade? Well, these are then whipped into whirlpools – in an ever desperate attempt to fill them with enough oxygen to reveal some form of discerning characteristic – so that a score may be apportioned, a medal awarded, and a market found.

This is where your writer earns their crust and it’s a tough market. Wine hacks are paid per word, and in these post internet times the income stream has gone from a torrent to a trickle. Money is paid by the highest bidder, which is why five out of every six recommendations, to spend your hard earned cash, promotes the major multiples or large producers. Consequently, tasting notes are often geared to a common denominator of taste, and indeed price. The results are often predictably anodyne – neither expressing real opinions nor provoking thought – after all you don’t get your free wine trips that way. In addition, the majority of readers may have little (or no) interest in anything but the narrow band of products the writers endorse – so you get what you get. 

 ‘Anyone who has had the good fortune of opening a bottle of Côtes du Rhône will find them generous, smooth and a joy to taste. They embody the warm sunshine that floods the region in summer’…Will Lyons ‘The Sunday Times’.

My apologies to Will, as he’s a good writer, but it’s extremely hard to come up with interesting and informative comment in the few column inches available between the recipes and the horoscopes.

So what’s the alternative?

‘Deep yellow straw colour with golden highlights and high viscosity may point to a sweet wine. Presence of botrytis evident, with no rot, indicating selective and possibly manual harvesting point to a wine of high quality. The well balanced fruit, sugar and acidity together with well integrated new (French oak) point to a wine from the old, rather than the new world. Strong primary fruit aromas of stone and citrus together with clean botrytis, marked acidity and high residual sugar, plus slow fermentation, leads to France/Sauternes. Excellent quality, well balanced, still youthful with flavours not yet fully integrated indicate that the wine is around 5 years old and will last at least another 10 years or more’.…blah, blah, blah.

That’s my nerdy note (blind) for Ch Climens 96 under exam conditions. Quite correct (apart from confusing Sauternes with Barsac) but boring! 

As David Sedaris once said ‘Faced with an exciting question, science tends to provide the dullest answer’.

Let’s try a more romantic ‘writerly’ approach;

The contents of the bottle in his hand was a product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man. In it’s colour, aroma and taste, it would certainly express the idiosyncratic geology and prevailing climate of its home terrain. But in addition, it would express all the natural phenomena of its vintage. In a sip, it would evoke the timing of that winter’s thaw, the extent of that summer’s rain, and the frequency of clouds. Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself….Amor Towles ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’

Ah that’s better! Lovely, lyrical, and evocative, but it doesn’t exactly describe what’s in the glass. 

So we all agree that we need a happy medium. Not too techie, but erring on the journalistic side, that’s impressionistic and tells a story, but brief enough for today’s online attention span of two minutes – which may be a minute too far for most wines. Then we have to level the playing field further, or dumb down, to eliminate the aesthetic snobbery attached to wine, as there’s a general assumption that if you write interestingly about wine you are somehow being elitist – because most people don’t think wine is that interesting.

Which leaves us in a bit of a pickle between the exciting (often confined to specialist publications) and the tedious (general) – a sort of wine equivalent of smart casual. I know what you’re thinking, all that romantic stuff’s easy when discussing a fine Burgundy or a stately Bordeaux but what do you do if faced with a wine that smells like the inside of a hamster cage, or worse, nothing at all!

Do we tell the harsh, unvarnished truth? Like hell we do – because that’s someone’s wine and it needs to get sold, and they’re picking up the tab! So we’re left scratching around for adjectives and soundbites to describe boring wines – which poses a cultural question.

 Is wine writing dull because the vast majority of wine is and is a cheap wine as good as an expensive wine if that’s all we’re prepared to pay for?