Wine tasting terms: helpful descriptions or elitist hogwash?

How to Drink Better: Pencil shavings, cat pee, Audrey Hepburn. Can wine really be reminiscent of these things - and would you want it to?

Why do wine writers use such silly descriptions? Can a wine really taste of leather?

Sweaty, saddles, barnyards, petrol, cut grass, pencil shavings, or even cat pee. Can a wine actually taste of these, and if they do, would you really want to put them anywhere near your lips? Wine producers, retailers and writers use the most flamboyant, at times ridiculous terms to describe a wine. Is it simply a way of making wine even more elitist and intimidating for normal people or does it actually help?

Wine tasting has been shown to be an inexact subjective science. Smell and taste are inextricably tied to our likes and dislikes and our own personal experiences and memories. We taste in very different ways. One person’s strawberry is another’s raspberry. Some notes endeavour to describe the physical attributes of a wine such as fruit, acidity, alcohol and tannins. Others, such as musty classrooms, tarmac after a shower of rain or Audrey Hepburn, convey a sense of style or place.

I try to keep my descriptions concise and informative and free of some of the more esoteric terms found elsewhere. But maybe I’m wrong. I remember talking to renowned taster and writer Oz Clarke, who said he deliberately used the most florid, over-the-top descriptors possible, as it made for more interesting reading. It certainly is true that a series of tasting notes reading “medium-bodied, smooth dark fruits, light tannins” 20 times over becomes repetitive, so perhaps Clarke have a point. Here is one of his:

“Bark steeped in cider vinegar acid flailed against cold flagstones. Balsamic vinegar, raspberry vinegar, and old rose petals soaking in a cast-iron cauldron. Cleansing, metallic tannin banging against sweet-sour rosehip and cranberry syrup, while watching witches chew hazelnuts and hurl the husks as well as fistfuls of lovage and savoury into the brew.” Phew.


Sweaty saddles, by the way, describes a wine fault called Brettanomyces. The French call it “goutte de merdre” which gives you an all too accurate idea of how it smells

However, some of you may agree with Kingsley Amis on wine tasting: “When I find someone I respect writing about an edgy, nervous wine that dithered in the glass, I cringe. When I hear someone I don’t respect talking about an austere, unforgiving wine, I turn a bit austere and unforgiving myself. When I come across stuff like that and remember about the figs and bananas, I want to snigger uneasily. You can call a wine red, and dry, and strong, and pleasant. After that, watch out.”

The truth is, unless you want to write about a wine, or talk about it to a friend, you can keep your own private wine lexicon encyclopaedia in your head.

Sweaty saddles, by the way, describes a wine fault called Brettanomyces. The French call it “goutte de merdre” which gives you an all too accurate idea of how it smells. Other wine faults include mousy, geranium taint and dirty dish cloths.

My favourite wine description is not from a modern journalist but Irish wine writer Maurice Healy, who wrote in 1940: “I have always found it a manly wine, but none the coarser for that. There is a robustness about it that one does not associate with wines from the southern slopes; it is, perhaps, the Ulsterman of Burgundy and that is no mean compliment. One hears the clang of armour in its depths; Mozart closes his clavacin when it is poured, and Doctor PG Wodehouse defers telling that story he was about to begin. But Bach moves towards his organ; Henry Ainley opens the pages of Henry V; the host turns on the lighting of his Rembrandt; and the noble wine blends in with them all.”