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How to Become Comfortable Discussing Wine

Updated on April 5, 2018
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I have worked as a writer in France for ten years, writing professionally for primarily entertainment and food publications.

The older I get, the more I prefer drinking to eating. Eating is so coarse, so inelegantly biological. In it goes, sloshing round the cement mixer and down through the pipes and out the other end where no sun shines. All living organisms need food. Only humans choose to drink wine. It’s an activity that exists on a higher plane than the base activity of mastication.


The minute you go into reveries about a wine, or close your eyes to enjoy it more, you’re officially a twat.


Getting drunk on Bacardi Breezers in the street in front of coppers is not a noble pursuit. It’s drinking with your brain in gear that I’m talking about. One of my teachers at university was the once devilishly handsome Professor Roger Scruton. He was a Kant expert, a rabid Thatcherite and a hunting enthusiast. If I’m honest, I struggled to understand his lectures. But a few years ago he wrote a book that was a philosopher’s reflections on drinking. As well as a few pairing ideas - Plato’s works required everything from a light rosé to a fine Claret, even a Manzanilla - Scruton goes intellectually large on “one of the greatest human goods”. The book was called I Drink Therefore I Am, a riff on René Descartes’ famous Latin phrase “cogito ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am. The book is pretentious intellectual trash and I absolutely love it. It describes, for example, the wines of Macon-Solutré-Pouilly in Burgundy as having “the starched-white simplicity of the moonlight itself”.


Do not hide it, if you love it.

Despite the ponderous intellectualizing and the long purple paragraphs, Professor Scruton’s book is basically a love letter to chilled-out, contemplative boozing. Back down here in the real world, away from Scruton’s ivory tower, the minute the conversation about wine goes beyond facts, someone will start looking like a tosser. The minute you go into reveries about a wine, or close your eyes to enjoy it more, you’re officially a twat. But surely this is something we should all be allowed to do. It’s no different from standing in front of a painting in a gallery for longer than two seconds, or lying back and letting music envelop you.

From South Park
From South Park

Translating an introvert, emotional experience into words should be a pleasure, not a test.


I don’t need to labor the point to a Hubpage reader, that wine is often beautiful and stimulating. The misconception is that to get intellectually buzzed and articulate about this to others you have to know all the official wine words, like what ‘stalky’ means, how Vinylguaiacol is essential to the bouquet of a good Gewiirtztraminer, or how to spot pencil shavings, sour cherries and brioche in fermented grape juice.

Sure, speaking the lingua franca of professionals is useful; it helps to be able to dig in to your brain and find a word that describes what you are tasting. Camphor, savoury and mint were all in small, pleasing ways useful words for me to attach to the effect a wine had on my taste buds. Not just because I wanted to bellow them across wine tastings to show how incredibly clever I was, but to be able to articulate the story being written in my own head.


Wine criticism and wine writing are often alienating.

Is the democratisation of wine empowering people to find their own wine words? Måcon-Solutré Burgundy Scruton style is “the starched-white simplicity of moonlight”, which is poetry. Your more workaday - but expert - critic would say “it’s ripe and creamy with toasty vanilla , which, as language goes, is a bit naff.

Wine criticism and wine writing are often alienating. It’s as if the words are written in stone, and to be able to discuss wine you must learn them. Trying to compile the right wine words from the mandated list is anxious-making for people who are normally quite able to string a sentence together.

Why must something as versatile as the English language become as stiff and as subtle as a brick when it has to describe wine beyond its most rudimentary characteristics? Translating an introvert, emotional experience into words should be a pleasure, not a test.


When you can easily find the words, then a wine has achieved something miraculous.

I once tasted a Sauvignon Blanc - definitely old world, but I can’t remember from where. It immediately conjured up an image of water running over pebbles in a mountain stream.

That is how I like Sauvignon Blanc, more Evian than du vin, a whiff of grass but not too oily; no cat urine, no lychee, no thanks. When you can easily find the words, then a wine has achieved something miraculous. And yet everything I stimulating. The misconception is that to get intellectually buzzed and articulate about this to others you have to know all the official wine words, like what ‘stalky’ means, how 4-Vinylguaiacol is essential to the bouquet of a good Gewiirtztraminer, or how to spot pencil shavings, sour cherries and brioche in fermented grape juice.

Sure, speaking the lingua franca of professionals is useful; it helps to be able to dig in to your brain and find a word that describes what you are tasting.


  • Camphor
  • Savory
  • Mint

were all in small, pleasing ways useful words for me to attach to the effect a wine had on my taste buds. Not just because I wanted to bellow them across wine tastings to show how incredibly clever I was, but to be able to articulate the story being written in my own head.

Is the democratisation of wine empowering people to find their own wine words? Måcon-Solutré Burgundy Scruton style is “the starched-white simplicity of moonlight”, which is poetry. Your more workaday - but expert - critic would say “it’s ripe and creamy with toasty vanilla , which, as language goes, is a bit naff. And it is even worse when you buy wine online, judging by the descriptions you would fall to the floor of just a sniff of the wine they sell.

Wine criticism and wine writing are often alienating. It’s as if the words are written in stone, and to be able to discuss wine you must learn them. Trying to compile the right wine words from the mandated list is anxious-making for people who are normally quite able to string a sentence together.

Why must something as versatile as the English language become as stiff and as subtle as a brick when it has to describe wine beyond its most rudimentary characteristics?


Translating an introvert, emotional experience into words should be a pleasure, not a test.

I once tasted a Sauvignon Blanc - definitely old world, but I can’t remember from where. It immediately conjured up an image of water running over pebbles in a mountain stream.

That is how I like Sauvignon Blanc, more Evian than du vin, a whiff of grass but not too oily; no cat piss, no lychee, no thanks. When you can easily find the words, then a wine has achieved something miraculous. And yet everything I wrote and thought and loved about the wine was officially wrong. I remember discussing this water thing with someone in the business, who looked at me as if I was a simpleton because I didn’t say light-bodied, or whatever I was ‘meant’ to say. It does not matter what any wine online description says, I like it.

At a recent tasting, among wine people on Pall Mall, I felt so stressed by the presence of the gnomic MW that I couldn’t taste anything. I was scared - if it had been an exam I’d have failed.

Everything just tasted “like wine”. The tasting ended and I lingered behind, talking to the minions after the MW left. “Sherry?” said one, holding out a tarnished-gold Fino. The bottle only cost £15 but it was really interesting. I found words like green almonds, toasted hazelnuts and brine. (Ooh, look at her. Tick, tick, tick.) Less winetellectually impressive was that it had a neutral taste, something like water, and I do love a wet wine. (You what?

Wet wine? Fail!) Also, it had a curious sappy quality that I think is probably to do with the wood it’s aged in -1 don’t actually know, though it always creeps up the side of my mouth and hovers in the roof like a cloud of tasty funk.

“Starched-moonlight” or “toasty vanilla”

Is the formality and order of wine words really what best serves us when we’re trying to describe wine? “Starched-moonlight” or “toasty vanilla”? Take your pick. The wine words of critics are hopelessly conflicted, even at the very high end. Here are the two monsters of wine rock with quite different readings of the same liquid:

Robert Parker described Malescot-Saint-Exupéry 2006 as “Sweet cherry and cassis notes intermixed with spring flowers, underbrush and licorice. Medium-bodied and beautifully concentrated with soft acids as well as sweet tannin, the overall impression is one of opulence and plushness...”

Neal Martin, his colleague and replacement, writes another way about exactly the same wine at exactly the same tasting “...Lacks some fruit concentration, dominant notes of green pepper and decaying leaves. The palate is... blowsy with notes of blackberry, blueberry and cedar with coarse, rather astringent tannins.”

I’d love to have all the knowledge and come up with the right words - or the vintage and the sunny slope in the actual vineyard it was grown in - and the name of the dog that pissed on the vines that year. But I can’t. And I’m not prepared to put the time in either. It’s a certain type of brain that accumulates wine words and grape data and the ability to retain it all doesn’t make you better at liking wine, it just makes you good at learning words.

Not having the wine words doesn’t stop me getting hyped about wine itself. In fact, not having them forces me to think about wine in a far more expansive way. You say, “toasty vanilla”, I say this...

I first tried a big white Burgundy with a significantly older and strategically minted boyfriend at a time when I was a poor student. At this time all I knew about wine was the rank Stowells of Chelsea boxes the average Baby Boomer parent guzzled. Compared to that, this was off-the-charts good; stupendous. You know when they talk about junkies chasing the dragon, for the last 28 years I’ve been trying to find this wine again - this absurdly delicious rich, dry wine that tasted of caramels and milk. Tasting it kicked me a new neural pathway called vino. Before then, if I felt shit I’d binge on massive bowls of pasta with cheese, butter, salt and even cream. Now I get the same reassuring numbness from a fat Chardonnay. Wines aa a sedative. You say Au Bon Climat, I say comfort blanket.

Not a wine word used there, but I think you get the picture.

From the movie Sideways
From the movie Sideways

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