The Rioja Scrolls is a home-made film starring a couple of Masters of Wine, which is responsible for the disappearance of a little over half an hour of my life. It’s occasionally baffling, certainly indulgent and has a strange Indiana Jones-style plot device, which powers its stars through various Iberian japes. “A wine film that dares to be entertaining,” they say. Well, it certainly tries.
I’m not sure I’d recommend that you actually watch it all, but the film is not without interest. Hidden within, though, was an interesting interview with Mercedes López de Heredia, who co-runs Rioja’s excellent and storied bodega López de Heredia (their Gravonia white, released at around a decade old and sold in the UK for about £17, is really amazing stuff). She is asked to describe a 35-year-old wine which she has opened for the cameras, but recoils: “My grandfather never allowed us to describe the flavours in a wine because he said that from the moment you describe wine, you are limiting it,” she explained. “And we are wrong when we try to teach people to understand wine by helping them to describe it.”
It’s an interesting point. On the one hand, hearing or reading a list of what someone else thinks a wine tastes of is almost always exceptionally dull, and any rule that bans people from inflicting their lists on me has got something going for it. On the other hand, I think that tasting notes can be useful so long as you don’t recite them to others like some kind of particularly uninspired performance poet. And more than anything else I think that creating something for people to taste and then denying them the opportunity, and even the language, to describe the experience is bizarre. If you don’t want people to tell each other what your wine tastes of, make wine that doesn’t taste of anything. Remove from wine the ability to enjoy its flavour, to revel in it and consider it and, where appropriate, to discuss it and there’s no reason at all to drink it except inebriation.
The fact is, people like to tell each other about interesting things they see, touch, taste or hear. And we like to use previous experience to help us understand new ones. So we hear Daft Punk’s new album (very good) and we think it sounds like Chic and the Bee Gees. We read a book and consider which other authors use a similar style. So it is with wine, and each comparison helps us understand the subject better.
But there are problems with describing flavour. One is that we don’t all perceive flavours the same way, and the other is that we don’t all use the same words to describe them. For example, Robert Parker loves to use the word “camphor” in his tasting notes. Camphor is “a white, volatile, crystalline substance, a terpenoid ketone, C10H16O, with an aromatic smell and bitter taste”. I have never seen, smelt, or tasted camphor. When Parker uses the word, I have no idea what he means. Other people might have no experience of other common descriptors – gooseberries, for example, are common in Europe and parts of Asia, but probably entirely unfamiliar to a Fijian or a Peruvian.
Even if two people speak the same language and have had the same previous sensory experiences, there simply aren’t as many words to describe flavour as there are flavours to describe. If we’re very skilled and very lucky we can choose the closest possible matches, but elements of our experience will still be lost, fallen between the cracks. We can say a New Zealand sauvignon blanc tastes of gooseberries and cat’s piss, and that gives you the general idea, but it’s just very vague shorthand. It’s like being hired to paint a portrait of the queen and delivering a stick man. So perhaps, in a way, describing a wine does limit it. In another, the wine simply exposes the limits of language. It’s frustrating, but that’s life – even when it seems sweet, it can leave a bitter taste in your mouth. A bit like camphor, really.