Last Thursday afternoon there was a wine tasting at OISE Cambridge, pitting wines from Bordeaux against a range of new world wines from California, Argentina, Australia and elsewhere (and also including an English sparkling wine).
The tasting was inspired by the presence of Hélène Fournier and Marina Lawton, both deeply involved not only in the wine trade but in the wine culture of Bordeaux (Hélène’s family, for instance, own a vineyard in Sauternes – and her husband’s family used to own one in Saint-Émilion – and they have been one of the most prominent shippers of Bordeaux wines since the 1860s).
I asked Hélène what she made of the New World wines and she was polite but unwaveringly loyal to the wines from her own region. In particular she was not keen on a Californian white, which she described as jammy.
Jammy, in Robert Parker’s lexicon (see here), is glossed as intense, with ‘superb extract’. It sounds like it should be a good thing. However, Hélène unmistakably pulled a face when she used the term. The wine lexicon is notoriously tricky to master – and I am not suggesting for a moment that Hélène, with her vast experience, has in any way failed to master it. However, it is not, as is sometimes supposed, an arbitrary and fanciful series of designations, but is subject to conventions which are no doubt also culturally specific. Robert Parker is an American and Hélène is French, and there is world of difference between their respective understanding of wines.
It is also possible, of course, that Hélène and Parker were in fact describing precisely the same quality of a wine, but that their tastes differ – Robert Parker is famous, or even notorious, in the wine world for his love of powerful, fruit-driven wine. Hélène may well be responding to a perceived lack of subtlety in the Californian wine, rather than a failure of that wine on its own terms.