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Jake Bennett-Day, co-owner of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, talks about the mystifying language used by those in the trade to describe wine

Sometimes, words aren’t very useful for describing wine. Despite most modern wine merchants’ lacklustre promise that they will help one ‘demystify’ wine, most guardians of the grape appear to have formed their own language with which to conceal a wine’s character from those who have not passed the same vinous examinations. Exams that qualify one as a wine bore. To pre-empt any raised eyebrows, I am admittedly, part of that club. And I bloody love the mystery of wine.

From cat’s p*ss in Marlborough Sauvignon to school pencil case in fine mature Claret, there is a generally accepted flavour wheel of terms that professionals use to describe a wine’s profile amongst one another. They’re mostly euphemisms, really. Whilst there isn’t much in the way of lavatorial flavour descripting in wine for obvious reasons, it’s probably more engaging to read and smile about feline urine than it is about thiols; sulphur-containing organic compounds with a sulphur atom bound to a hydrogen atom. Degrading cat’s pee contains thiol 4-mercapto-4-methylpentant-2-one (4MMP), and so does Savvy-B when it ferments.

I suspect that most people who drink wine for pure enjoyment would rather it be kept as a mystery. “Who cares?!” I hear them cry. A valid cry, I may concede, despite being one who is paid to care about that sort of nonsense.

Pouring white wine in a glass goblet. Black background
Pouring white wine in a glass goblet. Black background

There is a famous Elvis Costello (unverified originator) quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The same sentiment could be applied to wine. What more do many flavour descriptors tell the reader about a wine than a Tempranillo Tango does? There is an amount of subjectivity, or trust from the readers perspective, involved in the writer’s palate when it comes to identifying specific flavours. But really, I argue strongly that we should be paying far less attention to how a wine tastes and consider much more importantly, how a wine feels. Actually, perhaps dance would be a better medium with which to convey feeling. . .

Never once have I thought to ask for a wine that smells of lime and orchard fruits and tastes like the sea. If I’m in the mood for something refreshing, crisp and spritzy, that’s exactly what I’ll ask for in any wine shop or restaurant. Similarly, I don’t care if it tastes of vanilla, plums and tobacco, but I do want my bottle of red with beef on a Sunday to be rich, soft and unctuous. I implore you, use these simple, difficult to confuse feeling descriptors and you will be better served. Perhaps you’ll even walk away with a bottle you otherwise wouldn’t have picked – this is the ultimate success.

A word of warning. Try to avoid where you can using the term ‘dry’ as a descriptor for how you like your wine. It’s notoriously the most difficult to decipher as a wino because it simply means a wine that is not containing of sugar (or contains very little) – this is 95 per cent of all wines on a shelf or restaurant list.

Jake Bennett-Day, co-owner of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds
Jake Bennett-Day, co-owner of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds

So, next time you hear somebody waxing lyrical about notes of mulberry bush, plastic pool toy or Grandma’s closet (all genuine flavour descriptors, by the way), they’ve probably fallen too far down the boozy burrow of wine. Don’t feel too bad for them. There is fun to be had down the rabbit hole, but leave oenophiles to argue amongst themselves about the difference between cantaloupe and honeydew. What matters most is how far the drinkability dial is turned. And more often than not, how the wine feels and the context in which it is enjoyed is what will push the dial to 11.

Jake Bennett-Day is co-owner and director of Vino Gusto wine shop, 27 Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1NE

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