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How come you never say that a wine tastes like grapes? Add to ...

The question

How come you never say that a wine tastes like grapes? That’s what the stuff is made from.

The answer

Your question reminds me of a line from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The great Cambridge mind said (and I’m paraphrasing) that philosophy begins when language goes on holiday. His point was that philosophical problems are in fact largely phantoms of language usage rather than rooted in external truths – word games, in essence. Or at least that’s what I remember from graduate school so many years ago.

Some wine-column readers think similarly about wine criticism – that it begins when wine writers start tossing around fanciful descriptors that have no bearing on what’s in the bottle. But I would beg to differ. Wine is not merely produced from grapes, after all. The fruit undergoes fermentation, a complex reaction involving yeast. Yeasts change everything and leave behind all sorts of subtle flavours. Some cultivated yeast strains are even isolated to accentuate specific flavours, such as passion fruit or pineapple.

Think of the cheese analogy before you dismiss wine writers. Cheese, too, is fermented. Does it always taste merely of cream, its basic ingredient? Hardly. One often describes cheddar or gruyère as “nutty.” Époisses tastes like a dirty gym locker to me – in a good way, of course. Those flavours develop as the cheese ages. Besides, if one were to describe cheddar as “cheesy,” which, of course, it is, I’m not sure it helps to convey what cheddar is like compared with other cheeses. Similarly, if an automotive journalist were to describe a new Porsche as “car-like,” what’s the point? He or she would be out of a job faster than a Carrera can accelerate from zero to 60.

Some wines do taste literally like grapes compared with, say, citrus or berries or leather. One good example is muscat (or moscato), which strongly suggests white table grapes. But these wines are exceptions. I think shiraz tastes much more like plum jam and black pepper than it does a fresh shiraz grape. I think even Wittgenstein would have agreed.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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