Do you find it pretentious when people use metaphorical language to describe the taste of wine and beer? I know that I’ve mocked that language myself: “Plumy with a hint of arrogance!” I’ve been thinking about the poverty of our language for tastes lately. Occasionally my wife and I will explore a new area of food and drink together. This summer, we’ve been exploring Rieslings, the white wine that has so many different guises it deserves serious study (or so I keep telling myself). As we taste different vineyards and different styles, we try to describe the differences to each other. This is where I became aware of the poverty of our taste vocabulary. The thing is, it isn’t me, or her, or you. It’s our language.
Think about all the words that refer to colors and that do not depend on metaphors: white, black, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, brown, and pink, but also magenta, beige, vermilion, scarlet, indigo, umber, carmine, mauve, tan, cyan, russet, and rowan. Now try to a make of list of the words that describe tastes without reverting to words that really refer to something else, like fruits, meats, vegetables, or non-edibles. Once you get past sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory (umani), you’re done. It’s not only English that has this problem. There are no more words in any of the Indo-European, Finno-Altaic, Semitic-Nilotic or Sino-Tibetan derived languages that provide us with a richer set of choices than that. In contrast, color vocabulary varies considerably , depending on the technological complexity of the society the language supports, regardless of historical connections.
This is not a problem of taste being infinitely varied and therefore immune from easy categorization. Have you tried to count the number of colors in the color wheel of your computer lately? Many colors still depend on metaphor: kelly green, canary yellow, sky blue, etc.. The adoption of single-world descriptors for colors is an ongoing process. While systematic efforts to provide a set of single-word taste terms date back at least to the third century B.C., when Aristotle listed sweet (indexed as the taste of honey), sour (lemons), bitter (fresh olives), salty (sea water), astringent (red wine), pungent (wood smoke), and harsh (distilled alcohol ) as basic qualities, the vast majority of such descriptors today remain metaphors of the “It tastes like. . . ” variety.
Currently you can find this list of single-word taste descriptor: acidic, acrid, appealing, appetizing, balsamic, biting, brackish, briny caustic, delectable, delicious, divine, dry, dulcet, flavorful, flavorsome, fruity, full-bodied, gamy, hot, juicy, luscious, lush, mellow, mouthwatering, palatable, peppery, pickled, piquant, pungent, rancid, rank, scrumptious, sharp, spicy, strong, succulent, sweet and sour, tangy, tart, tasteless, tasty, treacly, unsweetened, vinegary, yummy, and zesty (source: World Food and Wine). This is a fine list. There are not too many metaphors (brackish, briny, divine, fruity, lush, peppery, spicy, treacly, etc), but one would like more specificity.
For example, a chili con carne can be spicy, but so can a Gewürztraminer wine. Clearly spicy means something different in each case. We need a taste vocabulary that helps us get closer to what we mean by spicy in both cases, not one that lumps different tastes together in a single category. A seriously stinky cheese, (technically, an aged, washed rind, semi-soft cheese like Münster, Raclette, or Limburger) presents another kind of problem. It is full-bodied, tasty, and lush, but also rank, gamy, and pungent. We need taste words that let us zero in on the unique qualities of foods that present such contrasting sense messages. Splitting tastes into too many categories weakens our description. People hear the word ‘rank’ or ‘stinky,’ and immediately turn off to the cheese, missing a delicious experience.
Right now, my wife and I are tasting what is clearly a delicious wine. It is different from the one we drank last night. How can we describe the differences? Why does it sound so pretentious to use metaphors? Is it because we are not supposed to pay that level of attention to the way things taste? Does doing so reveal a hedonism that is at odds with the Puritanical austerity of our national morality?
I’m tempted to make up a set of single-word tastes out of the metaphors commonly used for the tastes in white wine: ‘crass’ = like berries, ‘stonn’ = like stone fruits (apricots, peaches), ‘treed’ = like tree fruits (apple, pears), ‘vegge’ = like sautéed bitter greens (kale, spinach), ‘funnk’ = like compost or barnyard, or stinky cheese. I am fond of the double consonants. I think they give these new taste words a certain ‘spritz.’