Calcrete and limestone in Coonawarra ... photo Milton Wordley
Another linguistics skirmish
by PHILIP WHITE
Twitter was the scene of a linguistics skirmish amongst wine hacks last week: we concentrated our fire on the use of the current international wine buzzword: mineral. Regular readers will be aware of how this nonsensically vague term drives me really twisty.
“A beautifully perfumed, seductive and minerally wine,” is a typical back label usage.
My riposte is always to ask which mineral they mean; there are many. I suspect they usually mean something like chalky or slaty. But they could be referring to the sulphate minerals, or the sulphite minerals … is it calcium or ammonium chloride they mean? Phosphorous, arsenic or even hydrogen oxide? In its solid form, hydrogen oxide’s commonly known as ice: frozen water. It’s officially a mineral.
Ironstone, like this stuff at Yangarra, gives a very different range of aromas than do the calcereous chalky plains of Coonawarra ... photo Philip White
The English language is barren of words which relate specifically to aroma or flavour. We must use metaphors and similies, leaving plenty of space for confounding ambiguities. Even when we grab innocent-looking adjectives like nice we do it ignorant of the word’s primary meanings. The Shorter Oxford on Historical Principles lists these, from the top, as “1. Foolish, stupid. 2. Wanton, lascivious. 3. Strange, rare. 4. Tender, delicate, over-refined.” The list goes on to cover everything from “difficult to please” to “not readily apprehended”. Not until number #13 do we get “Of food: dainty, appetizing.”
Sophisticated is another bugbear. Those who claim it perfectly describes their wines may be alarmed to discover it means “mixed with some foreign substance, adulterated, not pure or genuine … falsified”, all terms which frequently apply much more appropriately to the product than the marketer would ever intend.
Accuse me of being picky, but consider. However slender the likelihood of your marketing writer bothering to consult the Oxford, what say your new Chinese agent encounters words like these in your propaganda and bothers to consult that bible of the English language to discover exactly what you mean.
It’s not as if they’re rare descriptors, but pity help the poor bastard who happens to have sophisticated and nice on the same blurb.
It always pays to look things up.
Savoury is another trouble. Whether they use this, or its American spelling, savory, I reckon most wine people who use it think it means sophisticated and/or nice.
Lesser dictionaries than the Oxford generally agree it means “attractive to the sense of taste or smell.”
It gets tricky when it gets more specific. “Salty or spicy. Not sweet … dish served as an hors d’oeuvres or dessert.” “Not overly sweet.”
The Oxford works through “Spiritually delightful … of saintly repute or memory” before hitting “Used in contradistinction to sweet, as the epithet of articles of food having a stimulating taste or flavour.”
Dig around the Latin roots and you get reams of words that sound alike. But in the crosshairs, it’s sapor, saporis saporare, “delicacy, taste, refinement”. Sapa is new wine. Sapiens is wise, discrete.
If I use savoury I try to limit it to something you can actually smell, the herb called savory, Satureja hortensis (above). It’s a very fresh meadow smell as green as tarragon. You put it in olive oil and goat cheese and use it in salads, soups, stocks and stuffings.
But hit Wiki and you’re quickly into “umami, or savoriness, a type of taste.”
Umami, a term I use sparingly on wine, is more common than you think. It’s the smell and flavour of the glutamates, including the monosodium sort. MSG occurs quite naturally: you’ll get a good solid dose eating a beautifully ripe tomato. If you blanche and peel ripe tomatoes, dice them, and let their free-run juice drain through muslin you get an exquisite clear syrup which is not much like tomato juice at all. Somewhere between there and the flavour of clarified chicken or fish stock is pure glutamate territory.
Tomatoes from the Settlement Wines garden
Glutamic acid is among the many amino acids that make up the proteins of yeast cells. When yeast cells die, their proteins disassemble back to the amino acids that formed them in the first place. This occurs when your yeast become the dead lees left in your wine barrel after ferment, or in that vegan delicacy, Savory Yeast. From here we get the chicken or fish stock texture of some wines, which gives a comforting feeling as much as a flavour.
You’ll get small amounts of the monosodium glutamate, as well as the others, in lees-stirred barrel-aged wines, red or white.
I started with a whinge about the lack of English words specific to aroma and flavour. With perfect Puritan parsimony, topped by some classically Victorian anti-Darwinian denial of human as animal, we pared flavour back, officially to four: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. They still commonly teach that these are only things that we are capable of tasting.
Which doesn’t explain our appreciation of pure water, or chilli heat.
It was Professor Kikunae Ikeda (left), the Japanese chemist, who discovered in 1908 that the principal component that gave a common flavour to tomatoes, seaweed and meat was glutamate. He applied the word umami to the sensation it provides. While it simply means “delicious” it’s also perfectly onomatopœiac, sounding like the mewl of a suckling babe, whatever the language. There are at least twenty amino acids in breast milk.
As the Prof quite sensibly went on to patent his technique for manufacturing MSG, western science was so reluctant to admit a fifth member to their quartet of dull English words for flavour that once they had niggardly admitted that we must be able to taste something else they applied the word savoury, because that’s what they thought umami meant in English.
In other words, if you were careful, you could use umami on a back label in Japan, especially if it’s a major component of your wine. But try it on a pious and greening west, and risk the foodists discovering it’s MSG?
Better stick to savoury, methinks, and trust Bacchus that nobody ever looks it up in a dictionary.