Parlez-vous ‘wine’?

Hapsburg jaw

At this time of year my friends start behaving strangely: they have terrible mood swings, one moment singing bawdily, the next moment heads bowed disconsolate; their speech changes, the accents become more Cockney/ Yorkshire/ Mancunian depending on where they are from and they start shouting gibberish such as ‘kerm onnnn’ or using odd phrases as ‘the mercurial Ukrainian’ or ‘at the end of the day.’ For a moment I think it might be some sort of recurring venereal disease but then I realise it’s the start of the football season. As a non-football fan, it’s interesting to see how when talking about football, normal people start to use a different language both verbal and physical. Football isn’t an especially complicated game, I know how to play it badly and I can understand the off-side-rule. My theory is that football fans use this language in part to dissuade non-fans like me from joining in with inane questions like ‘is John Barnes still playing for Watford?’ I’m not complaining, it seems to make lots of people happy (and very miserable) but it’s interesting how naturally people talk ‘football’ compared with how they talk ‘wine.’

Most people are afraid of wine talk. They’re afraid of looking snobbish or pretentious or appearing ignorant. There are complaints if you say ‘palate’ instead of ‘taste’ or ‘aroma’ instead of ‘smell’. That’s understandable amongst non-wine bore friends but what I do find odd is that many within the wine business are afraid of it. Wine merchants, journalists and sommeliers are fall over themselves to say that wine should to accessible. Take for example the latest Goedhuis catalogue. Rather than arranging wines by regions, they are done by style as if it’s a wine list in a gastropub rather than by one of the biggest names in en primeur Burgundy and Bordeaux. This produces anomalies where some Burgundy is ‘fresh, fruity and crunchy’ and others are in the ‘elegant, scented and precise’ section. Is there anyone amongst Goedhuis’s customers who would spend £500 on a case of Gevry-Chambertin without knowing that they have bought red Burgundy?

Angling, motor-racing, cooking (pan-fried, reduction, using the word ‘plate’ as a verb) all have their own jargon yet no one thinks that they’re snobbish. If you’re interested in something then be prepared to learn. Once you get to a certain level, then wine’s very complexity becomes an appeal.  If you’re on Goedhuis’s mailing list, they should assume that you’re fairly interested in wine. Ordering wine by style reminds me of those restaurants on holiday that have photos on their menus, it may be easier but it’s so much more rewarding to learn a bit of the local language. Wine is a language and a difficult one at that. It requires study, practise and confidence. Yes, you’ll feel like a dick when you first say ‘on the nose’ or ‘well-integrated tannins’ just as lisping all those ‘c’s in Castilian makes you feel like an effeminate in-bred Hapsburg. But with practise, it will become second nature and the word Cenicero (a town in Rioja) will dance off your tongue.  Wine isn’t going to throw off its snobbish connotations by pretending it’s simple, it will do so by confidently asserting its complexity. I might even get some of my football fan friends to come to a tasting.

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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