Linguistics of wine tasting

I like wine. I like drinking it, I like reading and talking about it. So, recently, I was delighted to join a tasting session focusing on wines the Loire Valley. I was particularly pleased, as two wines from the Loire, Pouilly-fume and Sancerre, are among my favourites. As it was my first ‘formal’ tasting session in Poland (and in Polish), I was also looking forward to the communicative side of the event. And this is what the blog is all about – linguistics of tasting.

Before I continue, I’d like to make two reservations. First, as ever, I am describing my experiences here. My comments are not meant to be taken as representative of wine tasting events or their language. There is, actually, research on the language wine tasting notes, if you’re interested (e.g. see an article by Arroyo and Roberts).

Second, I am but a plonker in the area of plonk, an amateurish amateur and I always feel that I smell and taste whatever the previous person said. Moreover, I have a strong preference for white wine and I know next to nothing about red wine (basically, the reds I do like are too expensive for everyday drinking). So, as an amateur I don’t even aspire to being able to talk even about complexities of bouquets (though I do like to take time sniffing the wine). I once read a story about a supertaster who, while having a cold, not only recognised the grape variety and the vintage (i.e., the year the wine was produced), but also its producer. I am so far away from that person that to say they don’t even see me in the rear-view mirror would be a major understatement.

So, when I paid my fee, I was eagerly awaiting the event. I was thinking that the strategy I would adopt would be to sit shtum and listen both to the sommelier and the other participants of the tasting. This was both to learn and not to embarrass myself. It didn’t exactly work like that.

But I was also wondering about the language. When you read literature on wine, there are two ways in which wine is described. On the one hand, the expert authors tell their readers about what the wine is all about. Tasting notes are full of simple statements, something like that:

It has a pretty nose of blossom and pear drops on the nose. Citrus and stone fruit sweetness on the palate with apple acidity to balance. (link here)

Not a hint of doubt, hesitation or subjectivity. This is what it is. I must admit that I would like to write more on the pomposity (or is it pretentiousness?) of ‘pear drops’, but this is not what this post is all about.

On the other hand, there is the subjectivity line. In one of the wine books I read, a very renowned expert blasted other experts who tell people what they ‘really’ smell or taste. Taste is subjective, they say, and we all taste things differently. So, if I smell strawberry jam and you smell prunes, while someone else smell kerosene (it can actually happen e.g., in some Rieslings) we are all right. I am not going to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of either position, though.

So, when I arrived at the hotel where the tasting was to be held, I was taken to the room with a table which had already been already set, with wine glasses and some crockery for finger food which was to be served.

A few minutes later, other participants arrived together with the sommelier, who told us that they would first tell us a little about the Loire region and then we’ll be tasting 7 wines (4 whites and 3 reds). The sommelier said a few words the region and the first wine came (Muscadet). As the sommelier was telling us about the wine, I couldn’t wait get my hands on the glass. And so, I did, looked at it, put my nose in it (like you do) and took a sip. I quite liked the wine, except my experience did not relate to what the sommelier had described. Sh.t, I thought, I’m really not good at it.

A couple of minutes later, as people were discussing the wine, I was asked what I thought and I said I liked the wine but couldn’t tell what the dominant scent was. It’s peach, said one of the participants (clearly experienced in tastings) and I said, oh, yeah, it’s a peach. I’d never have guessed. To which another participant said that you just need to train yourself to recognise the different scents. Not good news, I thought.

As evening went on, inevitably, I started sharing my hesitations about smells (just the nettles in one of the wines were so obvious, it was like being hit with them), we were moving more into the realm of subjectivity and only the sommelier was trying to preserve the decorum of ‘this is what it is’, but clearly with a wink.

And here it struck me – the tasting is only a pretext. I paid to participate in an event in which tasting wine is secondary to drinking it and talking about it. It was probably the only drinking event where I didn’t talk about work, politics, or the rising cost of living. How absolutely refreshing.

Communicatively, the event was not at all about making sure that we follow the sommelier’s story of the wine, discovering the intricacies of scents and identifying every petal of every flower that landed next to the vine. Rather, the event was about setting the topic of the conversation from which there was practically no diversion. It was almost like we all committed ourselves to limiting ourselves to just one ‘order of discourse’. We all talked only about wine.

This, incidentally, continued when the sommelier closed the event but said there was still some unfinished wine which we were welcome to finish. I quickly volunteered to help (with a lovely Sancerre), and so did others. But, surprisingly perhaps, we continued to talk mostly about wine, though, I must admit, the informality of our conversation grew substantially as we helped to deal with the unfinished wine.

And so, here is the linguist’s account of a tasting session. While in material practice, it was certainly about tasting wine, in communicative action, the tasting was secondary. Rather, it was about restricting availability of topics. For a couple of hours, we stepped outside the realm of ‘normal’ communication and, I want to stress, it was wonderful.

The next tasting event will be in January. I can’t wait.


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