Cutting Out The Bulle-sh*t - The Language Of Sparkling Wine

Do wine words actually play an active role in our tasting process?

When you fire a jet of water at a solid surface it seems like a one-way operation; there is a point of origin and a point of impact, with information, force and effect appearing to travel in one direction. Despite familiarity with the concept of equal and opposite forces, I always find a strange, counter-intuitive delight in feeling the water push back at meIf you hit a wall with an iron rod then you expect feedback. Water, though, this stuff that drips away benignly from forgotten taps and leaky drainpipes, just doesn't seem set up for two-way communication.

I find the the same is true for words and wine. Notes travel up from the glass onto a page or a screen, where they slowly assemble themselves into something that starts to look and feel like a meaningful, structured thought. The problem is that those words start to go back into the glass; they enter the airwaves between palate and pen and start bouncing back and forth, conjuring related thoughts and flavours by association, memory and sometimes pure conjecture. Apple leads you to pear, almond to apricot, acidity to tightness, creaminess to sweetness. If you're not careful, two quite different wines can end up sounding very similar. Unchecked, this sort of 'linguistic relativism' sends us down ever-narrowing paths, closing off exploration of flavours and sensations that lie in distant, unconnected areas of our personal lexicons.

If the act of writing about a wine can narrow our perspective, it stands to reason that it can also heighten it. It's for this reason that I am trying to cut out laziness when choosing wine-related words. Superfluous, overly-generic or commonly-misunderstood terminology doesn't help me build and develop my sense of flavour, and neither does it help readers shed any light on the wine. Absolute precision is not possible - you can't take a glass of wine apart like a car engine and name every single part. The fun is in acknowledging that we develop a deep and personal connection between language and flavour, and the more resourceful we are with words the deeper our experience might be.

Five Sparkling Wine Words To Reconsider

These are my top five 'use with caution' words. They're all commonly-found, but, to my mind, somewhat misleading or imprecise. Sometimes a more detailed description can actually help us connect with the memory of a flavour or texture in a meaningful, enjoyable way.


This is a fairly widely-used term. I think it's good as a shorthand, but I prefer to be a bit more detailed - i.e. toasted x. I see it used as something to describe lees-ageing aromas, but in truth recently-disgorged wines aren't (to me) normally toasty. They might carry the flavours of pale or light golden pastry, biscuit, brioche and all manner of closely-related foodstuffs, but it's worth distinguishing between these flavours (which are not really browned) and a true, golden and warm toastiness which usually arrives some bottle age. The exception is where a base wine has developed toastiness from oak usage, although the wine would have to feature fairly hefty (and some relatively-new) oak usage. 

2. Nutty 

I find this one often used as a slightly generic age-related term. An example would be, "...this wine has taken on a lovely nutty depth from four years on lees." There are definitely nut flavours to be found, but these come in various forms, both positive and negative; for someone reading a note or looking for some help unpicking flavours, nutty might not be meaningful word. I often think of overly-oxidative wines as having a stale nut aroma (Dad's Christmas cashews still lingering in a badly-sealed packet at Easter!). A wine with bottle age could have a lovely caramalised nut aroma, whereas young Blanc De Blancs could taste of sweet, fresh Brazils. If you can find an evocative, sympathetic way to describe something, people will connect with it (even at the cost of a few extra words). 

3. Mineral

Ah, mineral. Such a difficult word. So difficult that I try not to use it - it just doesn't work. I try and find better ways of unpicking the universe of intangibility that this word takes a blunt swipe at. 

4. Mousse

There have been a few twitter discussions about this word recently. The problem is this - it is a visual word that people don't readily associate with a physical sensation. I can see a mousse, but can I feel a mousse? If you say 'sprightly mousse', readers will probably assume you have observed that the wine is lively in the glass, maintaining a good layer of foam. This is so glass-dependent that it is essentially meaningless - when they pour the wine and it shows a meagre waft of bubbles they'll assume something is wrong with the liquid itself (rather than wrong with their glass). Avoid the whole thing and talk about something purely tactile - i.e. texture. 

5. Smoky

This is a tough one. True smokiness - burning wood, for example - is pretty much unthinkable in sparkling wine. The issue is that this is precisely the flavour that most people would start looking for when they encounter the word smoky. Sometimes it can be used to signify the kind of reductive character you might find in a wine such as Dom Perignon, for which some would use flinty or struck-match (or even use the term minerality). This character is the subject of some discussion in the wine world at the moment, mostly because it is frequently spoken of as having something to do with terroir rather than being the less-mysterious result of deliberate winemaking style that manages fermentation in certain ways, avoids oxygen and uses sulphites judiciously (including at the dosage stage in sparkling winemaking).

The trouble with the word is that, aside from this kind of reductive characteristic, there are other flavours that you do come across that have something to do with smokiness. Some can come from oak and some are features of particularly ripe, vinous red grape components (I sometimes think that really good Meunier can carry something smoky about it, but that smokiness is very different from the smokiness of reductive winemaking). Old Champagne can also develop a certain savoury smokiness. 

For me this one is a case of finding better words to paint the sort of flavours found in those reductive styles, and being specific when I think there's something else going on.