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The bits in wine

From the archives. Shortlisted  for the Young Wine Writer of the Year Award  in 2012. See also the follow-on article:  “On the Information Content of Wine Notes: Some New Algorithms?“.

During a recent comparative tasting for an Italian wine award, a young Nebbiolo – ‘red as copper, a spirit from the forest’ – stood its ground against a seasoned Chianti, ‘searing red ink with walnut shells melted into its sultry and sulky stream’. However, it was a racy Sangiovese that clinched victory. Swirling, sniffing and gulping with enthusiasm, one of the judges with his alarmed wine-writer wife in tow, declared: ‘she glimpses at me, shiny black leather, disappearing in the dark to a raven muss of hair. She’s been eating morello cherries and chocolate’ – the Sangiovese, that is.

If the wine descriptions seem suspicious, it is because the Italian award never happened. The writing has been cobbled together. A dash of Australian wine journalism, a drop from an English baronet wine buff’s pen and a mystery ingredient: one of the three wine notes is an outright fraud.

Fraud is a constant in the history of wine. The wine industry’s shady underbelly of wine adulterators, bottle collectors and mislabelers haunts the wine world from Burgundy to Shanghai. And somewhere, behind the trickery, there is invariably a writer’s pen. The forger must advertise his product, the dubious auctioneer must catalogue false provenance. If, as Burgundy wine grower Laurent Ponsot claims, 80% of pre-1980 Burgundies sold at auction are fake, how many tasting notes of old Burgundy perpetuate a fraud?

Just like sugar candy, brandy cask washings and bitter almonds had nothing to do with the Sherry they adulterated in the 19th century; one of the Italian fantasy tasting notes has nothing to do with wine. And, just like those Sherry adulterations, the fraudulent wine note does not stand out at first glance. We would hope, of course, that a seasoned taster might be able to distinguish true from fake Sherry wine on closer inspection. But it is less clear whether a seasoned wine literati could make a similar judgement about the veracity of a tasting-note.

Should this worry us? If the fake Italian wine description does not stand out, perhaps the genuine writing lacks quality. According to Émile Peynaud, renowned bordelais wine-scholar whose legacy lies at the heart of modern wine-making, occasional tasters and informed amateurs ‘speak in metaphors and allusions, and not always in the best of taste […] inventiveness of their vocabulary conceals its vagueness’. Making a similar point more brutally, irreverent new world critic and economics professor at Princeton, Richard Quandt (well-known for adjudicating the judgement of Paris) has termed tasting notes like the Italian fantasies, ‘wine bullshit’.

Being fooled is one of the central pleasures of wine. There is a thrill in succumbing to the mystery that lures a confident taster into dead-ends and self-deception; the thrill of recovering humility in the face of mystery. Yet it is because the experience of wine is not clear-cut that there is room for ambiguity and dishonesty in wine. But ambiguity also leads to an ironic situation in wine writing: the most surgically precise wine-descriptions and wine ratings are, perhaps, most dishonest of all. If a sense of mystery and wonder are central to a taster’s experience, then a sentence of precise wine jargon followed by a percentage score is, to put it kindly, an inaccurate representation.

Similarly, it would be inaccurate to dismiss Adelaide wine journalist Philip White’s metaphor (a Sangiovese as a cherry gobbling, leather-clad apparition in Louboutin heels) as amateurish. White may be a maverick, but after a thirty year career in wine writing he is certainly not an amateur. And it would have taken world class brass to confront baronet Sir Osbert Sitwell, a distinguished early client of Berry Bros. and Rudd, with the charge of writing ‘bullshit’ in his assessment of ‘that murky Chianti’.

Clearly, the distinction between professional and amateur, between technical precision and wobbly metaphor, is a flawed measure of tasting note quality. As in blind-tasting, the elimination of a candidate must be followed by an alternative hypothesis.

There is a clue in what is left, a phrase in an extinct language which, as we have seen, could be mistaken for a description of a young Nebbiolo. ‘Red as copper, spirit from the forest’ meant ‘white man’ in the talking drum language of the Congolese Kele people. Like Mandarin, the Kele language is tonal, though with two rather than five distinct tones. Every syllable in Kele has a fixed tone value which is high or low. Before the advent of the telegraph, the Kele people knew how to exploit this feature of their language for long-distance messaging using pitched drums.

To operate the ‘talking drum’, a message was deconstructed into its high and low tones and transmitted by a village drummer. There was a central problem. If only pitch can be transmitted, the consonants and vowels that make spoken language unambiguous are lost. A phrase with a mere two pitches cannot be transmitted by talking drum. This is because there is not enough information for the receiver to decide which of the many phrases corresponding to a given pitch sequence the drummer had in mind. The Kele had to solve twin problems: encode language into binary signals and then decode these signals to reveal the intended message – for instance, the arrival of a white man.

The central problems in drum communication are also faced by the wine writer. The first is to encode complex sensory information into words. Odorant molecules rise from the wine and pass through the taster’s nasal passage before reaching a patch of neurons. Following a complex mechanism not fully understood by science, odour molecules bind to the hair-like extensions of the receptor neurons. More than 10,000 different odorants can be detected by the hundreds of olfactory receptors in a human nose. A biochemical reaction sends an olfactory signal to the centre of emotion: the brain’s limbic system. Then, as the wine glass passes to the taster’s mouth, sensory experience deepens further. Onion-shaped structures called taste buds containing up to 100 taste receptor cells, again with neuronal properties, pass more information about the wine’s chemical qualities to the brain.

The writer’s task is daunting. Vast swathes of shifting information must be distilled into a few lines of written language. Unhelpfully, science provides only a limited vocabulary to describe basic taste qualities – salty, sour, bitter, sweet, umami – and only six basic olfactory qualities – fruity, flowery, resinous, spicy, foul, and burned. Though wine-tasting systems may provide access to a large set of recognized vocabulary, the fundamental problems remain: how is it possible to write about sensory experience so that a reader may reconstruct the taster’s sensory information from mere words? While science may never unravel the mystery of human sensory perception, it can help us to approach the problem of communicating through a wine note. The key lies in the fact that the Kele talking drum and the wine note share a fundamental property: both are communication systems.

In 1948, Claude Shannon, a young prodigy mathematician at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, showed that every communication system, be it the talking drum, the wine note or a television, has a simple schematic representation. An information source produces a message. For instance, in wine-tasting a message is generated by the interaction of wine with the human sensory system. Then a transmitter, in our case the taster and note-writer, operates on the message to produce a signal (a tasting note) suitable for transmission over a channel (a glossy magazine perhaps). Finally, the reader of the tasting note must decode the message to reconstruct the taster’s impression of the wine.

The answer to the problem of decoding messages, Shannon realized, is redundancy: in the English language, rxdxndxncy mxkxs xt pxssxblx tx rxxd thxs sxntxncx. Redundancy also made it possible for the Kele people to send complex phrases with drums, by using long stereotyped phrases with unambiguous pitch sequences to represent words. So the word ‘moon’ was transmitted as ‘the moon looks down at the earth’ and the sun-burnt white man was drummed in the sequence of pitches corresponding to the phrase ‘red as copper, spirit from the forest’. Redundancy also lies at the heart of blind tasting. A wine’s combined attributes must be consistent with a particular variety, vineyard and vintage, just like a long combined sequence of drum thuds must be consistent with a recognized phrase to be understood.

For the wine writer, the principle of redundancy in communication can be used as a weapon, with which to defend the art of the tasting note against the terse precision of tasting systems and grading points. The stereotyped phrases of the tasting world must be woven into metaphor and allusion, if the reader is to recognise redundancy and empathize with the taster’s experience. The Kele phrase for ‘white-man’ may not have been used in a wine-note yet. But next time you write a tasting note for a luminous, woody Red, begin by remembering the information theory behind an extinct African drum-language.


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