Wine writing: Cant, Kant and can’t

Wine writing: Cant, Kant and can’t

Those were the days. Forgive me for mentioning it but the first edition of my little book, Wine Tasting, was published in 1968: ‘A book for everyone interested

in this fascinating subject. Michael Broadbent writes simply and without cant’ – so wrote my old friend Pat Straker, editor of Harpers Wine & Spirit Trade Gazette, and first bold publisher of this hardy perennial. I had to look up ‘cant’ in the dictionary. I suppose it boils down to ‘obscure professional jargon’, or what nowadays might be described as ‘wine-speak’. One lives and learns. I was very flattered to see from an old cuttings book that the phrase was also used to advertise the book in an American wine journal. What my transatlantic friends thought of the word ‘cant’ I never ascertained. One thing is quite certain: writing simply, and without cant, is the antithesis of much current wine writing, from the odd – sometimes very odd – article in an obscure British regional newspaper to the more widely read, internationally renowned, wine critic’s journal.

Although I started writing regularly about wine 50 years ago, it was always with the consumer in view, for I was in the traditional British wine trade at the time; this, perhaps amateurish, simplistic, view continued well into my Christie’s days, though a bit more self-consciously polished (and relaxed) in more recent years. Partly force majeure, as I am not well versed in technicalities. To say the least.

What about Kant? I read recently that Emmanuel Kant, in his 1784 essay, What is Enlightenment, wrote that ‘immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another’. Kant was not referring to wine, but, taking that relatively simple statement out of context, it certainly applies nowadays to the ‘lack of resolve and courage’ of so many keen amateurs (and those in the wine trade) who are reluctant to express their own opinion, to rely on their own natural sense of taste, preferring, timidly, to wait for a guru’s written-in-stone ratings.

On the other hand, a simple numerical rating can be more useful than, to borrow Jancis Robinson MW’s phrase, ‘purple prose’; an over-the-top profusion of effusive descriptions which, taken out of context, certainly would not help the mind-boggled reader actually to identify a wine.

Why try to describe a wine at all? I regularly ask and reply to this question at the tasting sessions I conduct. Its most useful purpose is as an aide-mémoire, the lecturer striving – with glass in hand – to convey recognisable facets of aroma and taste. Otherwise there is no need to use words at all in order to appreciate its delights – or otherwise.

On the other hand, I do like a bit of pure poetry, my favourite author being the late and great André Simon. At the end of a lunch at the Hind’s Head in Bray (this was in the early 1930s. This small Thames-side village currently boasts two three-star temples of gastronomy, Michel Roux’s classic Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck) his host asked Simon for his first reaction to the wines. He answered that his ‘first thoughts evoked memories of Berkshire’. A 1926 Chablis reminded him of the ‘grace of the silver willow’; the 1919 Montrachet ‘of the stateliness of the Italian poplar’; the 1920 Cheval Blanc ‘of the magnificence of the purple beech’; the 1870 Lafite ‘of the majesty of the Royal Oak’. But as to the brandy (an 1842 Roullet & Delamain), ‘there was no tree with its roots in common clay to be mentioned in the same breath…’.

Mind you, the French have always been good at this sort of thing. Some years ago, Pierre Poupon, an eminent Burgundian man of wine and a distinguished writer, told an old friend of mine, the writer, Denis Morris: ‘To taste wine is to read a book slowly, to listen to a concerto, to contemplate a work of art … To taste is to open one’s eyes to the glory of nature…’. Perhaps better to listen to than to read, for I can imagine Poupon’s eloquent hand movements and rapturous expression.

A bit more down to earth were the late Louis Jadot’s last words on the subject: ‘There are four things to do when tasting a wine. First look at it and say “what a lovely colour”. Then smell and say “what a beautiful bouquet”. Thirdly, drink it and say “what a good wine”. And lastly, look at your glass and remark, with pathos, “what a pity it is empty”.’ Surely preferable to tortured and over-the-top descriptions incorporating a (largely imagined) full panoply of fruits, spices, coffee and chocolate; ‘gobs’ (ugh) of decadent, mouthfilling heaven knows what…

And where does ‘can’t’ come in to the equation? If you find you can’t describe a wine, don’t. Just sit back and enjoy it.

Michael Broadbent, a director of Christie’s, has more than 50 years’ experience in the wine world.

What Michael’s Been Drinking this Month

sweet white wines

Apart from a modest top-up of Champagne to enliven my fresh orange juice at breakfast, meals at home and elsewhere (except at Matsuri, our favourite Japanese restaurant) are accompanied by mainly reds, with Berry’s Good Ordinary Claret as an emergency standby; then a magnum of 1986 Château Mouton Baronne-Philippe: a lovely, glowing, mature colour; fragrant, classic (slightly medicinal, sea shells) Pauillac nose; firm texture, perfect weight (12.5%) and crisp flavour.

Written by Michael Broadbent