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Winespeak: How to talk about wine

Can a wine ever really evoke a 'clove cigarette enjoyed in the rain'? What does 'a perfect liquid oval' taste like? Expert wine writer Charles Jennings discusses the obscure nature of winespeak...

Beginner’s winespeak: How to talk about wine

So you’ve been drinking tolerably decent wine for a few years now, and you feel that maybe it’s time to move to the next division.

You’ve mastered the difference between a grand cru and a generic Burgundy; you’re just about comfortable with tannins and structure; you can, with some difficulty, point to Coonawarra on a map.

All that’s stopping you is that:

  • You now have to acquire a huge amount of arcane additional knowledge – the equivalent of a study book combined with a car repair manual
  • You have to be comfortable with the new diction that goes with it – the winespeak that shows you’re serious.

You know what I’m talking about. ‘Grippy’ you can learn to live with, likewise ‘minerality’. ‘Biscuity nose’ and ‘graphite on the finish’ are a bit more of a stretch, but you’ve got time.

Advanced winespeak

At what point do language and meaning part company?

But what’s this charging over the brow of the hill? A whole other army of winespeak, one that resembles nothing you’ve come across before.

There’s a red that evokes ‘a clove cigarette enjoyed in the rain’, and I’m not making that up.

A particular Sonoma Valley Chardonnay is defined by ‘a teasing sense of crystalline minerality’, and a Grenache-Carignan blend can be ‘a perfect liquid oval’.


How to talk about wine


One Burgundy contains ‘a grid of tannins’, while another is ‘broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted’. To say nothing of ‘linear core’ and ‘Mexican chocolate’.

Wait – what exactly is this? It seems to be nothing less than a kind of anti-language. Or, to put it another way, the point at which language and meaning part company before your eyes.

Why do we use winespeak?

There are two reasons for this:

  • The number of descriptors available for wine appreciation is pretty small – especially when you consider the thousands of wines to be talked about – so wine buffs press unfamiliar, sometimes unintelligible, words and images into service just so they don’t bore themselves. There are, after all, only so many ways you can combine ‘body’, ‘red’ and ‘full’.
  • Essentially the experience of drinking wine exists in the drinker’s own personal universe. Unlike an opera or an art exhibition, there’s no common event against which to test your assertions. What goes on inside a few cubic centimetres in your head is pretty much the only thing that matters. A quality like damp roof tiles? Why not?

Personally, all I want from my winespeak is a kind of graven simplicity – something along the lines of: there are three flavours of wine; red, white and… what’s the other one called?

Read the full article by subscribing to the December issue of Decanter magazine.

Written by Charles Jennings. Edited by Laura Seal for Decanter.com

Charles Jennings is the co-author of Sediment: Two Gentlemen and Their Mid-Life Terroirs, written with Paul Keers.

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