Much of what we keep ourselves busy with in the wine industry, is the taste of wine. Taste when it comes to quality, consumer expectations and the price at which we can produce what is expected. But when does a wine taste good? We know from varying wine competition results that even experts don’t always agree. Can we understand someone else’s perspective of taste, at all? Are we not only left with what we can experience for ourselves? Is the best wine not ultimately just what you find to be the best? Seems we don’t need to drink wine to get philosophical, we can just think about it!
But how good you find the wine, is only one element of what interests me today. What it actually tastes like, is another. How do you know that the way you experience the taste of chocolate, is the same someone else does when you share a slab? You both call it chocolate as that is the name you were taught to associate with the taste, but you only have your own reference to go on. It might be that your friend experience chocolate the way you do cheese. Who knows what another’s experience of sweetness may be? Perhaps they taste savoury and call it sweet. Your experience of anything is in your own mind and although guided by associations and learnings along the way, how anyone actually experience anything, is a secret to everyone else. We all just have our own experience to go on. (If you find this train of thought enticing, do read What does it all mean? by Thomas Nagel)
There are many descriptions for the smell and taste of wine. To recognise them requires experience with wine and a wide frame of reference. Some of these descriptions or flavours are more familiar than others. Most of us know the smell of mint or a golden delicious apple, but if you have no proximity to eucalyptus trees (and no one explains that it smells like Vicks), would you understand the reference? Most of us remember the smell of pencil shavings, but perhaps cigar box is not a familiar scent? Before South African supermarkets ventured into all types of berries, local wine drinkers might have struggled to understand the difference between blueberries and blackberries, redcurrants and cranberries. Not all of us have a reference to the smell of things like oyster shell and flint. And who in South Africa has grown up with an experience of forest floor?
Not experiencing flavour the same way, already makes things difficult, but at least using the same reference for our associations helps when you try to describe a wine. What happens though if you don’t have the same associations? The wine world today is much bigger and some of the traditional wine descriptions are lost on those who grew up far from the forest floors. While broadening your horizons is probably the best advice when it comes to building a wider wine flavour library, it is not always easy to travel and to experience everything from boysenberries to elderflower.
It doesn’t have to be that intricate though. Have you ever looked at a wine flavour wheel? When you are trying to pinpoint the flavour, start at the most obvious. Do you smell fruit or flowers? An earthiness of spice? Now take it a step further. Citrus? Tropical? Only then try to decide if the citrus flavours are zesty lime or perhaps rather that interesting combination of sweet and bitter you get from grapefruit. What I have found over the years, is that tasting with someone who has been at it longer, who has made more associations, helps you build your own. Sometimes there is something familiar to the aroma, but you just can’t put a name to it. Confirmation of those smells and tastes will create associations in your own mind.
The SA wine industry is working hard at being less intimidating. While it helps to use the same flavour references when we talk about wine, wine will be more attractive if it embraces some others that are local and more familiar. Perhaps regular wine drinkers know asparagus and can pick up its discerning flavour in their glass, but I bet in certain communities it is not familiar. Perhaps there are fruits and vegetation that are better known that we can also employ in our attempt to open wine to everyone. The Chenin Blanc association is doing some exciting work in this regard – also to produce wine wheels and flavour references in other languages. (Read more)
Even when we have a lot of exposure to different tastes and flavours and even when we refer to the same flavour libraries, it still does not mean that my experience of canned peas is your experience of canned peas. It does, however, make it easier for us to try and communicate about something that we love and love to share!