When I am asked to describe the bouquet of a wine I always preface my answer with something along the lines of, “this is what I smell and it may not be what your nose is picking up….” ( ah, sorry about the picking bit…. )
When it comes to recognising bouquets we are all victims, and beneficiaries, of our environmental histories. Some of these are deep seated and cultural while others are ephemeral, transitory or even learned.
This is all quite apart from the fact that each one of us is more or less sensitive to various types of bouquets. To assess a wine for possible inherent faults, for instance, it is reckoned that five people need to be involved!
So, do we have an Irish sense of smell as opposed to an English one and, if so, how might we use it to our advantage?
Let’s put this into context. Recently I asked Wine Australia Research if they might forward to me one of the Wine Flavour Cards that they have produced so that they might better understand the Chinese market and its unique character in relation to wines.
It’s a fabulous piece of research that looks at whether cultural and lexical differences are important when it comes to buying and selling wine. Clearly Chinese is an extreme as the following results makes obvious:
- Generic descriptors are used more often than specific descriptors. The most commonly selected generic descriptors are smooth (平滑), fruity (果香), sweet (甜), mellow (醇), and lengthy aftertaste (回味).
- When using specific Chinese descriptors, the most prevalent terms are: citrus fruits such as pomelo and lime for white and sparkling wines, red fruits such as yangmei and dried Chinese hawthorns for red wines, jackfruit and longan for dessert wines
Source: Wine Australia, Research Development and Extension
So, what about Ireland?
Ireland has taken to wine quite recently and as such can claim to be an ‘emerging market’. We have a unique heritage and are known across the world to express ourselves individually, coherently and, one might add, often! As we speak English it has been assumed that whatever is written on wine for the market in England is alright for us in Ireland. Is it? Why would someone in ‘Jackie Healy-Rae Country’ relate to what ‘fruity’ means to a wine drinker in Oxford? Alternatively, why would someone in Newcastle understand what a wine described as having ‘the whiff of an oxter’ about it? Language alone is not good enough to assume we know what the wine maker is talking about.
Then there’s the culture. While the food we eat has changed a lot since our grandparents’ days we are, many believe, imbued with the smells and tastes of at least one, if not two, generation(s) gone by. (I shudder to think that future generations will share an international commonality in this respect …’ah the smell of a Subway Store’, or, ‘get that McDonalds Fries bouquet?’..)
Relate wines to your own sense of smell and to no-one else’s! If you can balance yours with others and get a common result so much the better. Thus, if we all reckon a slightly aged Riesling from the Rheingau exhibits a sense of petrol fumes. Great. If you think that it doesn’t but you always get a whiff of your favourite cheese, then go for it. It is not up to you to accommodate producers as much as it is their responsibility to accommodate you. They cannot do so individually but as with the Chinese example they can, and should, relate to us culturally.
Is our wine tasting so different from England? I believe its similar but different. This certainly works in our favour with many of the inexpensive and sweeter supermarket styles that have found favour in the UK. We tend to find them either too sweet, too simple or not ‘real wine’ at all!
It may work against us in that we don’t have a wide appreciation of older or indeed expensive wines – we have such a limited history of buying and drinking them. This is a generational thing and will improve in sophistication with time. Right now we possibly err on the side of ripe fruitiness a bit too much. Mind you, we are adventurous with the grapes we are prepared to look at, in contrast to the labels we are influenced by most of which tend to be classical rather than modern/funky.
‘Freshly boiled new potatoes with melting butter’ resonates with me. ‘Yangmei and dried Chinese hawthorns’ do not. For all I know they are the same thing (although I doubt it!). The point is, take wine descriptors in English with a grain of salt and don’t always believe that what you read on the label actually means something.
- Taste the wine first!
- Follow a critic that seems to taste like you do.
- Begin to interpret key wine descriptions back into your own meaning of whatever language you speak.
This might be a ‘Jackie Healy-Rae dialect’ or a south Dublin yuppie expression saying the same thing but sounding very differently indeed. Above all, taste for yourself and don’t let others do it for you and just like a fabulous bowl of freshly boiled potatoes keep it simple.