I used to think wine was for other people, just like martinis were for lawyers. While I drank it, my choices were based on a vague notion of the Rhone being in the south, and where the bottle stood on the supermarket shelf rather than knowledge. It was for others to know about. Others like Jancis Robinson whose FT Weekend columns so often go, ‘As you know [insert something few do here]’, like my dad (who I later learned doesn’t know much at all), and my boyfriend who always knew the answer to my “what’s that wine I like again?” question.
As someone who doesn’t like to talk if I don’t know what I’m talking about, I had nothing to say about wine. There was so much I didn’t know and so many who sounded so sure they knew it all. Grape varieties, domaines, the winemaker’s dog’s name. Soil type, year, weather. There was biology, chemistry, history, geology. A smattering of anthropology, lots of geography. I remember learning about oxbow lakes in school but I guess the Loire wasn’t one because it never came up.
But then in 2015 I was given a wine that tasted alive, and even though I had to ask where the Jura was, I too was alive. I could relate. We spoke the same language, and finally I had something to say.
I drink to savour, not for the right terminology or the specs.
Last month I was at a tasting where the winemaker was reluctant to tell us what anything was, asking instead how it made us feel. A more educated drinker might have said “a green Cabernet Sauvignon with some Pineau d’Aunis and schist-loaded minerality” but I felt purity and, the winemaker being Patrick Desplats post Babass, a nuclear burst of flash-frozen blackberries with day-after-the-rave lucidity.
That it was possible to have such different answers got me thinking. Wine has a universal language, but what’s universal about something as fleeting as a memory?
Languages are useful, says the girl who can’t speak French but moved to France. But the fact I’ve survived as long as I have proves there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Consider the wine list. That Rosetta Stone of a book, its contents sometimes as impenetrable as a day-hike through an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb without a map. Is it right to need Big Brother depth intel or a PhD when all you want is a glass? I don’t want to retire the entire sommelier sector, but why is there room to list the names of villages with a total habitation of two but no space for an indication of taste?
Lock me up for thoughtcrime, but winespeak often creates more distance then it connects. And like any glossary, it has its limitations. Take ‘varietal typicity’ – whether a wine shows it can only be answered yes/no. How far does that go? Or the sling all your things in that old duffel-bag descriptors of ‘black fruit’ and ‘herbaceous’. To hear it is like listening to opera through a stethoscope – a scientists’ tool not suited to translating art.
When I drink, I drink to savour, not for the right terminology or the specs. I drink for associations and memories, joy and energy, for colour, to contemplate but also to refresh. I drink for kaleidoscope glitter, shapes, unexpected turns and twists. Sometimes there’s mystery, other times it’s more about fluidity than a sense of individuality. Best of all is when I feel that pulse of liquid electricity.
I still know very little of the technical talk about wine, and have no need for terms like ‘body’ and ‘length’ when I can say “like a battle axe” and “to the moon and back”. My geography’s still vague, even though I talk a lot about volcanoes and the taste of specific mountain ranges. But having lived there the last six months I’m certain the Rhone is too far south, the fruit too sun-rotten jammy lava oozy-black, the wines too ripe for my taste – and the Loire, where I’ve survived in a troglodyte cave the last six weeks and where the ‘black fruit’ stays a skin-puckering stalky green, is every bit as wet as a lake.