Culture & Wine: #7 Language

A complex subject, so, an easy one to start …. my grandparents will have never heard the words Champagne or Prosecco, two wine words that are known today by every adult in the Western World and beyond; they are quite definitely part of everyday language. Then there is Liebfraumilch…… the white wine of the 60s, not forgetting Blue Nun of course, and Mateus Rose, all iconic wines from that era, and part of everyday language in the 60s too. And, as far as I can remember, nobody knew nor cared where those wines were from or what the grape varietals were! But then something changed, new wines and therefore new words entered the language of the masses, especially Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, and Merlot, Shiraz, Malbec, all the names of internationally grown vines that started to appear on wine labels. People wanted to know more than the place where a wine originated, and so Hermitage, Chablis, Sancerre, Mosel, Chianti written on labels wasn’t enough any more because we needed words to differentiate between different products we desired. But even today it’s surprising that many people don’t know that a Chablis is made from Chardonnay, and Sancerre from Sauvignon Blanc. Then we have two common wine words that we all take for granted nowadays …… oaked and unoaked. These too are used as differentiators in wine-speak, guiding us towards preferred wines, whatever the grape varietal or country of origin.

Another wine word that is now more commonly used, though not always fully understood, is terroir, a French word that has entered the English language. Put that word into Google Translate and you won’t get much back, it’s not about a direct translation, you need to understand the word itself to once again differentiate between wines you may or may not choose to buy. To myself, it means “the total environment in which a vine/grape grows”, and so relates to more than the soil, including rainfall and water availability, drainage, elevation, altitude, sunshine hours, mean and extreme temperatures, whether vines are facing N, S, E, or West. So, when I see or hear a wine being “terroir driven” or “expressive of the terroir” I know that this wine is distinctive or typical of THAT place. But …… does everyone else have the same understanding?

So far I have listed a few words relatively common in the day to day usage of English language as people buy or discuss wine. But there is another “sphere” of language in which attempts are made to describe the taste of wine, or to put it more accurately, to describe the sensory and aesthetic effect of having tasted a wine. Even more specifically this is the language OF wine, and is of such interest that there are areas of academia dedicated to it’s study in the fields of linguistics and philosophy. These are two areas I have researched for this post and will quote from, especially the linguistics work of Professor Adrienne Lehrer at the University of Arizona, and that of philosophy Professor Dwight Furrow at the San Diego Mesa College.


Linguistics

Writing in Questions of Taste (Barry C Smith, ed.) Professor Lehrer contributes a chapter “Reflections on Wine Vocabulary” in which she explores and describes the language of wine scientists, wine professionals and wine novices.

Naturally her chapter is full of “linguistic theory” specifically relating to two aspects of the descriptive part of wine vocabulary; the intra-linguistic aspect (how words connect to each other) and the application aspect (how the words used connect to the wider world). For the first component of intra-linguistics she uses semantic fields theory and, in particular synonymy, antononymy and hypononymy (class inclusion). She begins with what she calls pure taste words;

“The pure taste words are quite simple and limited: sweet, sour and bitter. Salty is rarely used. Subtypes of sour include tart, acidic, acetic, and possibly tangy, which may also involve a feel as well. Related to sweet is its antonym dry and several hyponyms of sweet: cloying and sugary. As is obvious, sour, bitter, acidic, acetic, cloying and sugary are negative in evaluation, while the others are neutral or positive, depending on the norms for any particular wine and the drinker’s personal preferences.”

Pure smell words seem to be few and far between, although scented, fragrant and possibly floral spring to mind, before descriptions jump to specifics based on a particular substance such as coffee, elderflower, tar. Then we have a group of words related to mouthfeel and split into two classes, body and other tactile sensations. Body gives us heavy, big, fat, flabby, thick, solid and deep, in turn leading to strong, sturdy, solid, powerful, forceful, beefy, robust. On the opposite side we have light, thin, fragile, delicate. This then leads to wines being described as masculine or feminine, a classic example which is very common in wine circles is Volnay Pinot Noirs as feminine and Pommard Pinot Noirs as masculine!

The next grouping of wine descriptors all relate to “age”, important because the ageing process of a wine can improve or destroy it, and is therefore essential information for collectors to understand where a wine is situated in its life. Such words include green, unrepentant, ripe, mature, immature, decrepit, senile, ageing and dead. Professor Lehrer finishes this section of her chapter with a short note on two evaluative or judgemental words, balance and complexity:

Other common wine terminology is closely connected with evaluation, for example, balance and complexity. Balance refers to the proportion of various components in a wine: sugar, acid, tannin, etc. Positive descriptors include balanced, harmonious and round. Unbalanced and unharmonious are negative, along with terms that specify particular faults {flat, cloying, sour). Complexity refers to a wine’s various components and flavours. Complex wines, that is, those with several flavours that interact and emerge during the drinking process are highly valued; simple wines are not bad, but they are uninteresting to wine gourmets.”


Metaphors

My second reference source is Professor Furrow who has recently published a very readable book for winos, Beauty And The Yeast, in which he also tackles the language of wine in his chapter “Metaphor, Imagination and The Language of Wine”, but from a different angle than that of Professor Lehrer. Here’s a quote from him that nicely sets up his view from a philosophy perspective:

Wine writers cannot avoid using metaphors to talk about wine because there is no adequate, literal vocabulary that can replace them. Even the commonly used and widely accepted fruit, vegetable, and earth descriptors that have now become standard in the wine industry are metaphors.”

He’s absolutely right, Pinot Noir smells/tastes like cherry, Sauvignon Blanc can smell like elderflower, but neither cherry nor elderflower are present in these wines, they are both simple metaphors. Professor Furrow goes on to make the point that if we find “fruit metaphors” as a useful source domain for describing wine, then we should be able to accept as useful other source domains including, “wine as a person” “wine as a body” “wine as a building” “wine as a piece of cloth”. It is from these source domains that we get metaphors to describe and/or evaluate a wine such as boisterous, assertive, voluptuous, fleshy, sinewy, generous, robust, expressive, supple, structured, layered, brooding, flinty, wet stone, demure, shy ……… the list is endless, though many are often combined into a phrase or sentence within tasting notes. Here are two examples cited by Professor Furrow, one involving the use of emergent metaphors, the other broken down into individual aromas, flavours and textures. Can you spot which is which:

The 2001 Batard-Montrachet offers a thick, dense aromatic profile of toasted white and yellow fruits.This rich, corpulent offering reveals lush layers of chewy buttered popcorn flavours. Medium bodied and extroverted, this is a street-walker of a wine, making up for its lack of class and refinement with its well-rounded, sexually-charged assets.”

“The 2016 Monterey Pinot Noir has bright cherry aromas that are layered with notes of wild strawberries and black tea. On the palate, you get juicy, black cherry flavours and notes of cola with hints of vanilla, toasted oak, and well balanced tannins. A silky texture leads to a long finish.”

One of these two examples is full of emergent metaphor, one is reduced to a list of individual elements although these are metaphors too. One of them demonstrates how a metaphor is meant to describe the wine holistically which a reductionist approach doesn’t reveal. Read the two tasting notes again, which one tells you more about the wine as described, which one would you be more likely to buy?


Summary

In my previous post, I Taste White, Danell at Vinthropology.com asked “why do we need this language anyway”; it was a rhetorical question and leads me nicely into a summary and closure of not only this post, but also the whole series of posts on Wine & Culture. Our behaviour, personal and collective, is a surface demonstrable signal of the culture of the society in which we live. Language is a part of this. Seventy years ago my grandparents wouldn’t understand or even have heard of any of the common vine varietals in use today, and they wouldn’t need to anyway because wines weren’t available to them in the village shop! Today, as consumers, we use the language OF wine to communicate descriptions and judgements/evaluations of wine as a commodity as winemakers, journalists and other wine professionals reveal what THEY think or have experienced when they tasted something. Therefore they must find the right words, words that mean something to us as we read an article, a vineyards online description, a rear label on a bottle, a description on a wine list in a restaurant, or engage in conversation with a winemaker at a vineyard tasting. Context is essential, especially when trying to understand a metaphor, because each metaphor used needs to be interpreted by the recipient in the same way as that of the writer/speaker! Flamboyant and expressive vs superficial and unrefined are two opposites of the same metaphorical language often used by wine professionals, and they can only be understood if one has tasted and thought about different wines that are at each end of the flamboyant – superficial spectrum. Then there is the metaphor “minerality” which is the subject of much debate in the world of wine at present. Do vines actually absorb minerals from the soil that are then somehow expressed in the resulting wine? Science says “no” but ……. to give this word some context, it is used to describe especially certain wines from Chablis, all are chardonnay, growing on particular hilly slopes in specific soil. (Kimmeridgean soil full of Neolithic oyster shells). I have tasted so much Chablis, and so many other chardonnays from different regions and countries that minerality sticks out a mile when you come across it. So, when I’m in Chablis trawling around vineyards all day, minerality is a word in common use, a word I can “taste” but not necessarily explain to someone else! But the vineyard winemaker and I know what we mean, we have shared language and shared context.


Closure

And so to close this very complex subject I can only make a humble attempt to describe as a layman in linguistics and the philosophy of metaphor. As I began writing this post I was enjoying a glass of Fleurie, which is a place, a commune/district in Beaujolais, France. Here, only the Gamay grape is permitted in winemaking and a standard and generalised description of all Fleurie to be found in Wine Searcher is as follows:

“Fleurie is a well known Cru Beaujolais wine appellation for red wines from the Gamay grape variety. They are typically light wines, silky and supple, with characteristic florality and bright aromas of blueberries and red fruit. It’s widespread recognition is often attributed to its evocative name.”

And now, my own humble attempt to write something worthy of this wine as I drank it sitting in our summerhouse on a warm afternoon:

This is quite a bold wine for a Fleurie, lingering on the palate like a gentle breeze on a warm summers day. And yet soft and supple without the harshness and prickle on the tongue of so many red wines in this price range. If it were a person it would be a young choirboy, dressed in a white flowing cassock and singing to perfect pitch”

Like to know more without spending “loadsa money“ on books or trawling the internet, then try this article Lush or Lean, it’s quite a fun read!

Lush or Lean?

I hope you have enjoyed my series on Wine & Culture and have extended your understanding of how wine has become a part of common culture in the western world. I also hope you are encouraged to try new wines, to explore new grape varieties and from different countries. The more your tasting experience is widened, then the greater will be your enjoyment of the wines you love most. However, it’s not always about the wine itself, because there are many other connected areas of culture that will add to your enjoyment too as I have written in my own book, It’s Not About The Wine. Maybe you’d like to peek at it and buy it?

In Vino veritas




Categories: Culture & Wine, Wine

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. It’s funny, when I first started my blog I thought about describing wine as people or personalities, inspired by a scene in the film “French kiss”. I did a few, but they just started to seem silly. I ended up with a mix of wine related terms and “borrowed” metaphors, but the idea had always been to try and describe the wine as closely as possible. Reading the two examples you gave, something else occurred to me. I found the first to be more descriptive than the second which stuck to a more straightforward description of aromas and structure, however it is also more subjective. I’ve got a sense of what the wine is likely to taste like to me based on what is usually associated with the words used, but… what exactly is meant by a “street walker”? Some one walking the streets in New York is very different from someone in a small, Italian village. As with most things, perhaps the best way is somewhere in between- some wine terms with a bit of imaginative flare to inspire the senses. In any case, just learning the names of different wines, grapes and regions from around the world is like learning a bit of that language. Perfect way to end thorough exploration of wine’s place in culture! 🥂 what’s next? 😅

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Danell, I value your opinion greatly 🙏🙏. I did wonder if anyone would pick up the street walker metaphor, I didn’t expand on it though professor Furrow did mention your exact point with “how can we be sure we understand or share the same meaning as Robert Parker?”. I must say the general sources of metaphors does appeal to me and I’m going to try it, though I may not share them here. Don’t want to ruin my science reputation completely 🤣🤣🙏🙏🙏

      Liked by 1 person

      • I liked your humble description! If nothing else, it’s a good exercise in really focusing on what you’re sensing and how you can best put it into words. I guess it depends on who you’re speaking to as well, for some people wine terms will suffice, but maybe for others, who aren’t familiar with them, other metaphors are more relatable.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes you’re right about who you’re speaking to, familiarity almost breeds a “codified language” and the wine conversations between us as a family would probably drive you nuts!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Another fascinating article

    Liked by 1 person

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  1. Culture & Wine: #7 Language – Vinthropology
  2. The Collection: Culture & Wine – Buddha Walks Into A Wine Bar ….

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