Tombs of the first Egyptian pharaohs were decorated with illustrations of vineyards and winemaking. Excavated wine vessels from the period list the year and estate where the wine was made, the name of the person who made it, the type of wine and an assessment of quality — usually a generic rating like good, twice good and three times good.
Oh, that current wine descriptions were as straightforward as those used by the ancients!
Modern wine critics are known for descriptions filled with flowery prose. George Saintsbury set the bar for flowery wine descriptions. Saintsbury was a noted critic and author who published works on a number of topics, but is perhaps best known for publishing “Notes on a Cellar Book” in 1920.
Of consuming an Hermitage from the Northern Rhone in France, he wrote, “The bouquet was rather like that of the less sweet wall-flower and as to flavor one might go into dithyrambs.” (Dithyramb is an archaic word having to do with bursting out in impassioned song or prose.) Saintsbury goes on to describe the wine as “so full and so complicated that it never seemed to come to a finish. You could meditate on it and it kept up with your meditations.”
Saintsbury frequently uses terms like “gunflint” as a descriptor for what today is likely referred to as “minerality.” I would like to think most of us have progressed beyond these flowery descriptions but there are a few reviewers today who would give even Saintsbury pause.
I rarely read modern wine reviews. I find it tedious reading through hundreds of critiques on wines I have never encountered and likely never will. To see what I have been missing, I flipped through a current edition of one of America’s top wine publications and here are some of the more egregious excerpts.
There’s a core, like the nucleus of an atom that holds everything together. Was this description thrown in for the nuclear physicist oenophile?
Crystalline minerality. I plead guilty to playing the minerality card on occasion, but scientific evidence holds there are no compounds in wine that impart mineral tastes like gunflint or wet stones. And what is crystalline minerality anyway?
Like a conga line of pineapples, oranges, mangoes and papayas. Would it not be more meaningful to just say “a tropical fruit explosion in the mouth”?
Opens with a tidal wave of oaky coconut … The palate smacks down with tannic bite while the mid level is a bit amorphous. Gentle readers, would this description entice you to buy this wine?
Studies show that such prosaic wine reviews are a turnoff to the growing multigenerational wine-drinking public armed with iPhones and increasing wine knowledge.
Try these pleasant wines that are long on enjoyment and short on prose:
Un4seen White Wine California 2010. $9.75 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs. A blend of chardonnay, semillon, moscato and viognier, four wine grapes not typically blended. Crisp, slightly sweet, subtle tropical fruit flavored wine. Pleasant on the palate. Versatile with an array of summer foods. A great screw-cap wine for tailgating.
EVOLUCIO Furmint. $9.75 at Tyson’s. Hungarian wine made from the grape variety furmint. Very similar to sauvignon blanc in style. Lots of citrus on the palate. Grapefruit flavors dominate this crisp and refreshing screw-cap wine.
Cambria Estate 2010 Syrah. $19 at Tyson’s. Unlike its counterpart — Australian shiraz, known for its in-your-face boldness — this American offering has finesse. Dark fruit flavors and subtle bacon blend on the palate. Delicious medium-weight, smooth red wine.
Email Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org