What’s in a name?

The act of smelling a wine and identifying its aromas is perhaps one of the most alluring parts of wine tasting and, I think, certainly one that mystifies the work of a sommelier. But what exactly is the intriguing link between our olfactive sense and wine, which has played a role in making it one of the most celebrated beverages throughout history?

On could say objectively that, besides the aromas formed during fermentation and evolution, the grapes contain chemical compounds which are also found in things like fruit, flowers, herbs, spices, and so on, thus the wine has these aromas. All of which would be essentially meaningless to us if we had never encountered those aromas for ourselves. Point in case, I can’t identify a rose aroma if I’ve never smelled a rose or have no memory of it. The fascination in smelling wine cannot, therefore, be reduced to an objective analysis, for it is the subjective and personal journey one engages in across the thresholds of perception and entwined in memory which makes it ultimately meaningful. Furthermore, when we translate this journey into words we are not only communicating our sensations, we are contextualizing the wine in our relative experience of the world. The wine is brought to life by our reflection of it and a story is woven through our description of it in appropriated words.

So what are we really saying when we talk about wine?

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”

…sighs Juliette from her forlorn balcony. A soliloquy in which a girl desperately in love questions the weight and meaning of names and words, raising the notion that the scent of the rose exists in and of itself regardless of what we call it. Thus in this scenario, the name is merely a communication device within the system of language that connects our perception with the sensation. And if our perception of a sensation could be different from another’s, as Juliette perceives Romeo differently than her family, than a name or a word is somewhat erroneous as a definitive term in that it is not intrinsic to the thing itself but relative to our experience and use of it.

“A rose is a rose is a rose.”

…written by Gertrude Stein in her poem “Sacred Emily”, plays with the law of identity where “A is A” and things are what they are. They have an essence which cannot contradict itself, if it is said to exist at all, without leading to ambiguity and fallacy of discourse. However, Stein also elicits the truth that, by saying the name, we can’t avoid evoking all the imagery and associations connected to that name, within our own perception and that of others. Furthermore, such imagery and associations become more profound through repetition. The rose is red, the rose is a flower, the rose smells sweet, the rose has thorns, etc. The rose itself has become an emphatic symbol of romanticism in literature. This symbolism has become so powerful that the significance of the word, which has been encoded in our memory, may well be much more prolific than a single essence would suggest.

With this concept being necessarily connected to language, we must admit the relativity of words both on an individual and sociological level and accept that the essence is not completely defined by, nor integral to our appropriation of a word to it in the sense that we refer to a great many things with one word. Yet, however non-contingent a word may be in accurately encompassing an essence, it is still empowered in as much as it has come to exist for us in a particular way. In other words, while the word itself may have gone beyond the actual essence, it is still confined within our experience of it. Words are not simply said without revealing our relation to the world, be it through collective memory or individual experience. Nor could a glass of wine be said to have rose aromas without awakening everything else that the rose has come to symbolise for us, always within the context of the world around us.

The Name of the Rose

…title of Umberto Eco’s acclaimed and celebrated novel which wanders through a metaphorical and actual labyrinth of mystery, ambiguity and philosophical questions. It is as much a book about books and the words and symbols used to write them as it is a post modernist dismantling of any dogmatic and absolute truth or meaning. In Eco’s own words…

“Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told”

Likewise, the words used to construct such stories are laden with historically and empirically embedded associations, perceptions and symbols which evolve through time and within the individual’s experience. The question left to us, therefore, is not to find the absolute essence of a word, but to look for it and questioned it in order to unravel all that it has come to mean to us. Just as a story is a complex layering of narratives and meanings, words are multi-dimensional concepts within a collectively empirical network. Furthermore, this network is continually enriched by our infinite number of perceptions in such a way, and is expanding at such a velocity, that the whole system of language risks to implode on itself, resulting in words that have come to have no meaning at all.

Why did Eco choose such a title for his book? The last line of the book states,

“Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”
“The rose of old remains only in its name, we possess naked names.”

So what are we talking about when we talk about wine? Do we merely describe the wine, or do we actually describe ourselves, and our world as we understand it, through it? Every wine may have a story to tell, but it is us who tell it, perpetually reliving our past and embellishing our future.

Some wines with rose aromas:

  • Provence Rosé
  • Pinot Noir
  • Gamay
  • Grenache
  • Nebbiolo

12 Comments

  1. I wrote a little about this on my own blog today, using an empiricist view of taste and that what YOUR brain perceives in aroma and taste is not necessarily what MY brain perceives. I tend to stick to the essentials of tannin, acidity, floral/fruity/earthy, and finish instead of the fruit salad bingo that many wine professionals confuse and intimidate novices with.

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      1. Haha thank you! Fruit salad meaning how wine writers seem to sense so many different fruits in a wine, it’s like a fruit salad. The bingo part is harder to describe. Do you know the game, bingo? You have a card with numbers on it, then numbers are called out randomly until all of the numbers on someone’s card are crossed off and they win the game! At the bottom of that post there is a link to an article I wrote about it.

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      2. Ok, figured as much. I’ve recently become a sommelier, and as an aspiring student I remember desperately trying to smell what the course leaders told me they smelled. The truth is you have to have those aromas locked in your memory to be able to identify them and you need lots of practice to be able to separate them from all the other aromas floating around in the glass. I found at a certain point I had to accept that THAT sensation I had is referred to as such and such aroma. But, it could also be said that experienced wine experts have tasted a lot of wine, so they’re able to contextualise what they’re experiencing in a wine savvy way.

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      3. I’ve had similar experiences with sommeliers at wine tastings! I was once asked by one on a cruise what I could smell and I said “oaked Chardonnay”! He wasn’t happy and asked me to find different aromas to describe it, but I said to him, “when I taste a banana I know it’s a banana, I don’t have to find different tastes and aromas to describe it” 😂

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      4. 😅 point taken, but no two Chardonnays are the same! Think about the difference between a Chablis and an oaked Napa Chardonnay. The differences in microclimates, soil, cultivation , harvesting and wine making lead to different aromas in the glass.

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      5. You are absolutely right, but ….. this has always been my point that you and I have knowledge of the terroir of Chablis or Napa Valley that a taster next to me doesn’t. Also you and I will differ in our subjective perception of a wine in its aroma and taste, so why is this necessary other than for personal satisfaction or memory. A banana is a banana and a Chardonnay is a Chardonnay unless it’s been massively over oaked. We must have a conversation about Chinese people tasting Italian or French wines, that’ll be fun!

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      6. Well, more knowledge leads to more understanding, more awareness and more appreciation. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to disagree here. When you identify fruit aromas, for example, you should also consider if it is unripe, ripe, mature, or cooked because this gives you information on the evolutive state of the wine. And also, if you were to chemically analyse the wine you would find certain chemical compounds that correspond to certain aromas, so they are actually there. Identifying them gives you information about the typicity and expression of that particular wine and allows you to understand the differences in terroir, albeit the inherent subjectivity in the individual’s thresholds of perception and olfactive memory. Chardonnay is Chardonnay, but how and why? In any case, I did my course in Italian but could only identify aromas in English! 🤔

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      7. A very well constructed answer …. again👍👍. And never apologise for disagreeing because this is how we all learn and develop but sadly in university and wider society today people take offence so easily!
        We are in different camps, age, gender, backgrounds and professions, you a Sommelier and me a retired psychologist. Different experiences. I also have a PhD in chemistry, analytical chemistry so generally I am very aware of chemicals present in Wines. But …. if you smell pineapple and honey in a Sauternes is it because of ethyl butyrate and phenylethylic alcohols in the wine, or, that those two compounds are detected chemically BECAUSE it smells of pineapple and honey? How are the results of blind tasting vs open tasting reconciled to allow for prior knowledge? Why are some wines rated as poor by professional tasters but later rated as highly recommended? Why can I smell a residue of washing up liquid in our kitchen for hours after the wash when nobody else can? Why was a colleague student of mine able to differentiate 4 different types of water in a blind tasting 100% time after time? These are issues I have whirling around as well as from chapters in the excellent book edited by Barry C Smith, Questions of Taste. I’ll shut up! 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

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      8. No, don’t shut up! You’ve given me plenty of food for thought. Are we talking about relativism then? …that while things may have inherent qualities of their own, our appropriation of value and truth to them are dependent on the frameworks of our own conventions, whether they be personal, social, historical, etc . I believe blind tasting is fundamental in order to develop a personal experience/memory of a wine but also to be as objective as possible by removing any prejudices. That being said, we can not avoid making judgments based on previous experience, it even helps us to be more critical, and our perception is also influenced by many variables such as mood, presence of mind, age, sex, background. Furthermore, a universal language is needed to communicate what is perceived, necessarily within a system of determined parameters. So definitions, descriptions, judgments are all dependant on the context. The phenomena becomes translated in a paradigm of contextualised meaning that is perhaps quite arbitrary to thing in itself. (Adding that book to my reading list 😉)

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