There’s a good article by English wine writer Hugh Johnson entitled Wine Writing Since Waugh in the most recent edition of The World of Fine Wine. What’s interesting is that it in effect categorises different styles of wine writing, without necessarily passing judgement on which is best, most effective or most interesting. Or perhaps just doing so in a rather English way.
The styles identified include:
Identifying human qualities in wines
A leading adherent of this style was André Simon, a Frenchman writing in England in the first part of the twentieth century. Hugh notes:
“He was the champion of the anthropomorphism, not hesitating to find human qualities in wine (a skill now sadly and wrongly disparaged) … 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 flavour. “This 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”.
Whether this style charms or repels is a personal preference. Personally, I don’t find it a particularly informative style in a factual sense, yet it manages to disarm and communicate a memorable message. Which is to say it can be effective, although the object of description could equally have been a bird, rather than a glass of wine.
Short form analytical descriptions of wine
Hugh observes that short form analytical descriptions of wine became popular from the 1970s. A leading adherent here is Michael Broadbent MW. Hugh notes:
“Broadbent’s published notes, and his calm analytical style, became an industry norm. Professionals work methodically through a wine’s attributes: Its colour, bouquet, taste, and aftertaste. In 2000, Château Margaux 1966 … 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“.
This style appeals to me personally – it’s fairly clear what’s in the glass, even if I rather wish that Michael would add a few more sentences to his succinct summaries, for the simple reason that I am interested in what he has to say.
Long form analytical descriptions of wine
This style captures longer form analytical descriptions of a wine’s appearance, aromatics, flavour and finish. It encapsulates the fruit, nut and vegetable analogies which were popularised from the 1980s and variously revered and parodied. A leading adherent here is Robert Parker. Hugh notes:
“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 his energy and commitment, the sheer joy of wine and lust for life, that make his words flow and create conversation.“
This style is what I would suggest is more or less now quite normal. I agree with Hugh that not all write with the same energy, but the underlying concept, that a wine’s aromatics, flavour and finish can be described analytically and by analogy to known flavours, remains firmly in favour and I think quite logical. Sure, it risks not been stunningly interesting or engaging when applied to hundreds of wines. But certainly there’s method and communication of a wine’s attributes that is in the Broadbent tradition.
Poetic and literary styles
All wine writers have their own particular nuances, but here Hugh is referring to what I might loosely call the “Andrew Jefford” school of wine writing style. In Hugh’s words:
“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 recognise – but don’t you want to taste it?”
I find this style actually has rather a lot in common with the first category above – the André Simon style. It could equally describe something that isn’t wine. For example, the same descriptions could describe orange juice or whisky. Therefore, I would agree it isn’t strictly informative in a factual sense. Yet, it is certainly communicative and conveys a sense of wonder. To me, the other side of the coin is that it risks appearing a little forced at times, particularly if applied to a large group of wines where one presumes that only so many wines might be described as hilarious, boisterous or rumbling. Grouping wines using such descriptions would appear more difficult still.