Pictured is a bottle of Chateau Musar 2006. Its tasting notes promise us smells of “confected cherry, blackcurrant and cranberries” with just a “hint of liquorice”. On the palate, we’re told to look out for “brambly and hedgerow fruits”, “blueberries”, “cherries”, “excellent acidity” and “fine tannins”.
I’m not really sure what that means. How does one confect a cherry? And how does its smell differ from an unconfected one? How much liquorice constitutes a hint; how much a smack in the face? I think I have some idea – I’ve drank my fair share of Musar – but every time I drink a glass my answers to these questions change, my senses altered, my powers of description irrevocably morphed into something new.
See, the trouble is, I wouldn’t describe Musar in those words. At all. Not even close. My little tasting book – I’ve promised Oskar, my wine father, to keep detailed notes on whatever I try – records my first ever bottle:
Wood (oak?), the inside of a tobacco pouch (David’s car?), weird cabbage thing. Nice tannins, blackberry, lamb?
Most of my notes are like that. I didn’t know what I was writing then. I still don’t know. I just did what I was told: take your immediate, arresting, sensory reaction to the wine and write down whatever you think fits.
Oskar’s response to a red Burgundy once (so good I recorded it):
Strawberries crushed on the back of a sweaty horse
These pictures are evocative. David’s car is evocative for me – David smokes a pipe – just as your childhood laundry detergent might be evocative for you, or the smell of the metal on the slide in the park, or the slightly sickly smell of nearly-burning milk and definitely-burning coffee that hits you when you open the door to a Starbucks, or the rubbish bin in the kitchen just after Mum had been cooking, or the taste of a hot chocolate with whipped cream, or the texture of the marshmallows you put in it. These images are evocative to me, just like an image of a hot, clammy horse mixing with the pulp of summer fruits was evocative for Oskar. Each vignette is a palimpsest of an earlier memory, a trace of sense abstracted and categorised, filed under some label or other, hidden away to be relived, changed, at some point in the future.
My life is different now. I drink different drinks, eat different food, use different laundry detergent. I’ve been introduced to ingredients I never knew existed, found a vocabulary to describe tastes I never knew I needed. Tomatoes taste different to me now after spending time in Italy; vanilla, saltwater, sesame all have a different importance to me after visiting Lisbon.
The memories we hold onto are relived through the irreducibly first-personal, the filter of the present. It’s why you look back on being wronged by a friend first indignantly, then wistfully, then with the resigned humour that only comes with age and distance. Its effects are most profound on the olfactory and gustatory senses, because all you really have is some vocabulary and some little, ineffable whisper of a subjective experience. So each word is loaded with every time, phrase, feeling, past and present, that you’ve attached to it.
We can drink a bottle of Musar 2006 together, have exactly the same experience, and yet smell something completely different. And yes, if we want to communicate these differences with each other, we must converge on the similarities and work our way outward. We must share a vocabulary, beginning with David’s car and working our way toward smouldering beech with a hint of liquorice, our memories entwining and dancing with our experiences, THAT wine THEN compared to THIS wine now, inescapably bound to our childhoods, forced to see novelty as evolution rather than revolution, flavours, smells, our feelings, borne back ceaselessly into the past.