First published in Issue 44 2014
Hugh Johnson charts the development of wine writing since (and before) the days of Harry Waugh.
Their bouquet was so delightful and so distinctive that even I, at times, could guess the vintage! What a flavour they had and what charm!" This is on the clarets of 1929. And the writer, with the distinctive voice, the charm, and above all the modesty, is, of course, Harry Waugh.
No publisher would publish his work now (I hate to say it). It's not the wine that's changed, but the idiom. In 1971, Harry wrote from California, "Floating as I do on my ethereal cloud of enchantment for all that is happening here in the wine industry." He was a wine merchant, a much-loved salesman, an incredibly perceptive buyer -- indeed, revolutionary -- but I don't think he would have understood what today's wine writers are trying to do. The craft has evolved into something no one ever tried before: the full-frontal analytical description of smell and taste.
I've been tempted to compile a sampler of the ways we used to write about wine. I needn't go back earlier than the century before last; indeed, I can't; there were no writers employed at the job. There were isolated flashes of genius. Michelangelo's description of San Gimignano is often quoted (by me, too, though I have lost my source): "It kisses as it licks as it bites as it thrusts as it stings."
My other all-time favorite, and the note I try to model my own notes on, is Mistress Quickly's in Henry IV. The wine is Canary sack: "A marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the blood ere one can say: What's this?" Searching -- how perfect is that? Madeira, Tokaji, and great German wines search. And evidently, in Shakespeare's day, Canary.
Cyrus Redding could be said to be our professional progenitor. His History and Description of Modern Wines was published in 1833. (A fuller begat list would include the 18th-century doctors Barry and Henderson.) Redding seems to be introducing the whole matter when he writes, "The French have terms for distinguishing different qualities in their wines, some of which cannot be translated: But the terms 'delicate', or 'fine', as applied to the wines of Champagne, the peculiar 'aroma' which remains in the mouth after tasting them, together with the 'bouquet', which is understood alone of the perfume, and is applied to the sense of smell, are terms pretty intelligible to Englishmen, who are drinkers of French wines."
Most of his book is information, splendidly succinct. Here he is, though, practising his new skill on Château Margaux, whose wines, "when in perfection, in a favourable year, have great fineness, a rich colour, and a soft bouquet, which is balmy to the palate. They have strength without being heady; and leave the mouth cool." He adds that "the first growth of Médoc are never sent to England in a perfect state, but are, when destined for that market, mingled with other wines and with spirit of wine [...]. Natural and healthful wines, the genuine offering of simple fermentation, are not the fashion in England." Does this mean he tasted his Château Margaux in France?1
Henry Vizetelly was a natural successor to Redding. His History of Champagne (1882) is the best known of his books about wine. He was in San Francisco for the Gold Rush, was correspondent in Paris, then Berlin, for The Illustrated London News, and was jailed for his too-literal translation of Zola's La Terre. But Vizetelly scarcely attempts to describe a wine. Where he is best is on its effect. On Champagne, he says, "any intoxicating effects are rapid but exceedingly transient, and arise from the alcohol suspended in the carbonic acid being applied rapidly and extensively to the surface of the stomach [...] the moment it touches the lips, (it) sends an electric telegram of comfort to every remote nerve." As Mistress Quickly might have said.
Finding human qualities in wine
Not much progress (in describing wine) had been made by the beginning of the 20th century, though the flow of information was unceasing. The French had meanwhile been busy fashioning characterizations of France's best wines. As early as 1725, the merchant Claude Arnoux wrote a buyers' guide to Burgundy. (He had his eye on the English market.) His descriptions of "Volnet" as "pale, light but fiery" and "montant" (ascending, perhaps, or "lifted," as we say these days), Pommard as having "more body and colour, perfume and balm," and Beaune as "smoother, more agreeable and commercial" foreshadow the litany of characters so brilliantly parodied in the Rabelaisian style at their banquets by the Chevaliers du Tastevin.
It was, of course, a Frenchman who set so many leisured Englishmen scribbling in the 20th century. André Simon arrived in England aged 22, married the daughter of a Southampton newspaper editor, and discovered a taste for ink. In no time, he had started his four-volume History of the Wine Trade in England. When he died aged 93, his tally was more than 100 books, all but one, I believe, in English. André's style scarcely altered. It was always a little stately and deliberate, but he never hesitated to reach out for images to illustrate his meaning. He was the champion of anthropomorphism, not hesitating to find human qualities in wine (a skill now sadly and wrongly disparaged). Old ladies came into it quite often, and there were plenty of buxom wenches. Nor did he scruple to make analogies between wines and trees, or painters, or anything that his reader, he felt, could summon to mind more readily than a flavor. "The Chablis had the grace of the silver willow, the claret the majesty of the purple beech, but as for the port [...] there is no tree, with its roots in common clay [...]." Sadly I can't find the original, but you get the idea.
Perhaps it was André's example that made his friends take up their pens, too. H Warner Allen, T Earle Welby, Maurice Healy, Hilaire Belloc, Ian Maxwell Campbell, Morton Shand, and Charles Walter Berry all recorded, some with a self-indulgence that either charms or repels you, their experiences at table -- often in each other's company. A scrap of dialogue in CW Berry's Viniana (1929) sets the scene. The art of description had not progressed very far: "There is certainly a distinct taste to the Margaux" (Château Margaux again, this time the 1875). "I am at a loss to know how to describe it adequately." "I know what you mean. I always refer to it as a cedary flavour, and I am content to leave it at that until I can think of or hear of a better term."
It was a peculiar culture, mind you, that isolated the finest Bordeaux and Burgundy (and Sherry and hock and Champagne), aged them until they were fading, and then gathered regularly to study the results. It was London, still in Imperial power, with cellars full of unrivaled collections going back to before phylloxera. The voices tend to be those of merchants and scholars and doctors. As the Californian Roy Brady wrote, "Fine wine was for the worthy, not the wealthy."2
George Saintsbury, perhaps the most formidable scholar of his day, professor and historian of both French and English literature at Edinburgh University, was asked by his publisher, Macmillan, to write his Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920). So little does it say about wine (though more about almost every other drink) that it seems Saintsbury gave it little thought. What he says, you have to decipher through what Brady calls "a thicket of literary allusions." Clos de Vougeot is the only wine he tries to describe, and we get no further than "the combination of intensity and delicacy in bouquet and flavour, for body, colour and every 'good quality of wine.'"
I have, perhaps unfairly, riffled through a few books to see how later writers have tackled the challenge. Let's stick with Château Margaux. Alexis Lichine, who taught a generation the way around the French vineyards, says, "Margaux at its best represents the quintessence of the Médoc, characterized by exceptional delicacy, finesse and lingering echoes of taste, often described as evocative of violets." Edmund Penning-Rowsell, in the same era, calls it "difficult to taste young [...] tends to taste astringent and thin, lacking the 'flesh' of the Pauillacs and the fruit of the St Juliens [...] when it is successful, this is, one may feel, the very essence of claret -- fine, delicate but fruity." Much the same terms with, for a change, a note of comparison, and even criticism.
Knowledge, as well as charm
In the 1970s, the tone began to sharpen. The burgeoning wine trade was looking for knowledge, as well as charm, in its practitioners. The Institute of Masters of Wine (inspired, in its essence, by André Simon's lectures 50 years earlier for the Wine Trade Club) set a cracking pace in professional standards. The Bar exams, I'm told, are easier to pass than the MW.
This was the milieu in which Michael Broadbent MW launched his Wine Tasting (1973), a simple methodical handbook setting out the practicalities of tasting wine and describing it that has never been bettered. Ten years later, in Le Goût du Vin, Emile Peynaud did more or less the same for a French public waking up to wine knowledge for, it seems, the first time.
Broadbent's published notes, and his calm analytical style, became an industry norm. Professionals work methodically through a wine's attributes: Its color, bouquet, taste, and aftertaste. In 2000, Château Margaux 1966 (in The Great Vintage Wine Book compiled from Broadbent's tasting notes over 50 years) is "medium deep, a lovely colour; nose low-keyed but harmonious, good fruit, slow to open up; medium sweetness and body, rich, good fruit, grip and balance, its sustaining tannins and acidity under control." There are scene-setting anecdotes in the book, and many telling images: 1966 Château Margaux in the mid-1980s "displayed its inimitable fragrance, beautiful elliptical shape, flesh and length." You always get the sense, though, that this is a working, rather than a selling, document; the author's deep knowledge and love of his subject are intrinsic, needing no emphasis.
There was clearly an opportunity, as wine drinking moved out of its niche and on to a wider stage, for more popular texts. My own first book, Wine, tried to fill this space in 1966, and the opportunity to map the wine world five years later in The World Atlas of Wine gave readers a new and graphic basis of understanding. The wine business, in full expansion, took on a new (and often spurious) glamour. While at one end, Steven Spurrier was teaching serious tasting to his students (many of them American) in Paris, there were salesmen on the road making uninhibited claims for their wines and, indeed, producers taking cynical advantage of a field full of romance and ignorance.
That was certainly the viewpoint of Robert M. Parker, Jr. when, in the spirit of Ralph Nader, he started his subscription journal, The Wine Advocate. He was probably right in avoiding the equivocation, the hints and suggestions, and the assumption of a shared culture that had worked for so long on the other side of the Atlantic. America, he thought, needed something more clearly stated, a scale of quality that everybody could buy into almost instinctively (like the school marking system). For all the efforts, over centuries, of merchants and authors trying to classify what they tasted and sold, no absolute scale of values had ever been established. The trade scale of the Médoc in 1855 only showed how far from absolute such ranking is. If it works anywhere, it is in the Côte d'Or, where grands crus and premiers crus now appear preordained.
At least a bottle-by-bottle judgment is practicable (given enormous application). All depends on the judge: If someone has the stamina and the self-confidence to take it on, it is hard to argue with them -- as Parker must have realized.
Parker's scores would not have worked without his vivid tasting notes -- nor, I imagine, vice versa. Together they were all-conquering. His American readers were not averse to hyperbole; British ones, accustomed to tentative judgments, were harder to convince. Where the apparent precision of numerical scores came in handy was in the investment markets; on a spreadsheet, a number beats an adjective any day.
Parker's style of description can appear almost as precise as his scoring. To stick to Château Margaux for comparison, here he is on the 1991 as a new wine: "It reveals a deep-ruby color, and a tight but promising nose of rich cassis, licorice, and toasty new oak. Dense, medium- to full-bodied, with plenty of depth, it possesses moderate tannin and a long, rich finish." So far, he follows the Broadbent model, with the exception of "rich cassis, licorice, and toasty new oak," which are rather more particular descriptions. But this is recognizably in the mainstream of Margaux commentary.
The whole of the vegetable world and beyond
The excitement begins when Parker finds a wine that stretches his vocabulary and challenges him to his style of poetry. Examples are not hard to find (or to parody). Cherries, berries, smoke, leather, lead pencil, chocolate, cedar, vanillin, underbrush, spice, peach, herbs, jam in gobs and oodles ooze from the wine right to its long, lusty finish. Many emulate him, very few succeed. His secret is the energy and commitment, the sheer joy in wine and lust for life, that make his words flow and create conversation.
By the 1990s the air was thick with fruit and nuts. If the older literary style of description had largely drawn on the relatively small stock of words to describe color, smell, taste, and structure, the 1980s opened up a vast new field, borrowing descriptions from the whole vegetable world and beyond. Can we blame Parker for the list-of-descriptors style that finds its nadir on every supermarket shelf, and now on bottle labels, promoting wine as an indiscriminate fruit salad of smells and tastes?
At the University of California, Dr Ann C Noble used laboratory methods to compile a Wine Aroma Wheel, grouping fruity, floral, chemical, smoky, and other aromas to guide student tasters. Academia gave legitimacy to what had often appeared to be fanciful associations. Describing wine became a game that anyone could play -- a game soon lampooned on British television by Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden in their weekly Food & Drink TV show. The formula went: (swirl and sniff a glass) "I get socks." "I get tennis shoes." Laughs came easily -- and so did a deep skepticism about what so-called experts "get" in wine.
There were entertainers, too, in the tradition of André Simon and his disciples. Lively writing was as important as taste or experience (and indeed still is). Cyril Ray cultivated and fertilized this field and orchestrated a mass of talent in 16 editions of the "more or less" annual The Compleat Imbiber (1957-92; see WFW39, pp.76-85). He induced such writers as Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth David, Isak Dinesen, Kingsley Amis, JB Priestley, Anthony Powell, and Graham Greene to tell vinous stories. Ray's own writing, starting in The Observer, was that of a wry, sophisticated observer and man of the world. He consistently rejected the role of expert. In some ways, he and Frank Prial, the first wine correspondent of The New York Times, sang the same tune.
Auberon Waugh was one of the best. Here he is describing an Aloxe-Corton 1971 from the shippers Doudet-Naudin: "I like Burgundy, and this wine smells, like all great Burgundies, of drains. My wife doesn't like burgundy, and she thinks it smells like the waiting room of a railway station in a novel by Emile Zola. The French call this smell 'violets'."
A powerful blend of science and poetry
Jancis Robinson MW entered the field in the 1980s with a more cerebral viewpoint. She generally eschews the fruit-salad school in her crisp analysis; you sometimes feel she is marking exam papers, though in a spirit quite different from Parker's. In 2011, Château Margaux 1996, to keep the comparison going, was "Dark crimson. Very fine, together and fragrant. Sweet and very Margaux -- super charming. Already quite evolved for a first growth! Lovely polish. Though you would need to distract attention from the fine tannins there in abundance on the finish. Very fresh. No shortage of acidity. A little fragile and spiky." This is method, not impressionism, vivid as it is. You can picture her typing this straight into her laptop on the tasting bench (as she always does). Job done. Next sample, please.
There are so many practitioners in the field now that I can quote only a sample. Jane McQuitty, writing in The Times, has no inhibitions in her Parkerish précis: "Sweet, spicy, scented garrigue-fruit that is heavy on violets and cassis"; "Heavy and ripe, spicy, juicy, creosote-spiked flavours"; "Superb, sweet, spicy, plum and strawberry-charged bramble Bourgogne Rouge." (Is this last intended to be funny?) At least Jane enjoys her job. Victoria Moore of The Telegraph fills in more background, with equal aplomb; but in truth there are simply more natural writers, or journalists, in the business. It is invidious to pick out one or two.
Serena Sutcliffe MW of Sotheby's writes catalog notes with such joyous relish that one suspends disbelief. Here (for a change) is Mouton Rothschild 1995: "Lovely, sleek, boysenberries bouquet, turning to cherry liqueur. Coffee, loganberries and sheer bouncy health on the palate. A touch of cherries on the finish. Very glowing. Last tasted in 2010 in Hong Kong from Jéroboam. Wonderfully expressive, 'out there' bouquet. This is all blackcurrant berries beautifully structured and composed on the palate. Superb juiciness fills the mouth."
We can discern many stylistic shifts in recent years. The first was an invasion of similes to supplement a limited supply of adjectives. Wines are no longer merely delicate or fine, but "like" lemons or nettles, or indeed boysenberries or loganberries. They go further than merely resembling fruits; they "offer" them, in confusing but perfectly categorical medleys -- most categorically of all on the laminated wine cards of bars with peremptory lists of the usual suspects, each expressing to perfection the stoniness, the nettles, or tropical fruit customarily attributed to its grape or region.
And above all, the minerality. Who launched this elusive (but now apparently universal) quality and descriptor? Such a thing certainly exists in wine, but nine times out of ten the writer simply means acidity, and might have said so. The cunning of "minerality," as used for sales purposes, is in its undertone of terroir, the hint that roots and stones are somehow implicated.
A new sort of literary gumption arrived on the scene with Andrew Jefford, a powerful blend of science and poetry. Here is a writer who does his interviews, delves deep into motives and methods, and then lets fly with whatever imagery he finds winging by. "There was little flesh on the bones, but here was bloom on the cheeks"; "The sober, dark, bitter-edged beauty of ambition and intensity, or the hilarious, quenching beauty of the boisterously drinkable"; "Rumblingly deep"; and "powdery, sweet-blossom purity" are poetic, not descriptive. A wine that "leans on the wind and strains at the leash" is not one you'd recognize -- but don't you want to taste it? Self-parody is not far off, nor occasionally a faint echo of Edward Lear. Jefford is drunk on paradox of a prime vintage when he writes "[Champagne] incarnates an idea of snowy finesse with rapturously neutral fidelity." Where other writers are happy with the old-lady, blushing-maiden school of imagery, he sees a wine as "ready to set off, its whiskers neatly brushed and its cravat spruced, for a boisterous assignation with its drinker." I hope that drinker is me. I hear echoes from across the Atlantic, too, in Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle. There are those, he writes, who want Pinot Noir to "explore scenic back roads," and those "who view it as a bullet train to Flavor Town."
One rule I am happy to see coming more and more to the fore: Verbs are stronger than adjectives; doing rather than being. To say what a wine does is usually more convincing and memorable than saying what it is or what it is like.
What gets readers reading
We have traveled from Harry Waugh's tentative, modest, exploratory appraisals, to far-from-modest judgments of a pretended absolute. From stumbling translation from French, to ludicrous lists of random fruit. We have fumbled with (usually half-baked) chemistry, some of us sniffy and hissy, claiming various pimples of moral high ground, as the skill of tasting, and writing about it, has blossomed from earnest bud to exotic flower.
The monarch of all tasters, though, was a man who uncharacteristically kept his advice on how to taste unwritten almost until his dying day. "It's easy to communicate when you're sharing a wine," says Len. "You can identify characters together, exclaim over glories and analyze faults. It's much harder to write it down." As I wrote in my introduction to Len Evans: How to Taste Wine, "To taste with him was to feel pitted against a gladiator of the test bench. Swill, sniff, suck, and spit so hard the spittoon rings like a bell; done in three seconds. And the dissection following without a pause: 'Decent fruit, acidity a bit low, too much oak. Not long enough. Next.'" It's not my style, as Len realized years ago when he was chairman and I was visiting judge at the Sydney Wine Show. I was ten wines behind in 15 minutes. "You're not here to enjoy yourself," said Len.
Oh, but I was, I did, and I do.
Isn't a writer's enthusiasm what gets readers reading?
1. Of the six classes of Bordeaux, Redding advises, "The first and second alone should be bought. Some of the lower, which are not worth much more than the duty, may, it is true, be purchased for common use, but persons of refined taste will scarcely ever go as low as the third class, and lower, never."
2. This is not to do justice to their enthusiasm. Here is Maurice Healy drinking Richebourg: "And then the true glory revealed itself, not to the eye, not to the nose, but to the palate. It caressed the gullet; it spread its greeting all over the mouth, until the impatient throat accused the tongue of unfair delay. It was glorious, glorious, glorious; and a month later I had not stopped talking about it." Isn't there a hint of Ovid in his style?