I am fascinated by wine descriptions. From a series of adjectives, often without a verb to change them into a sentence, to accounts using metaphors whose poetry can take your breath away (just read, for example, Oz Clarke, Andrew Jefford, or Tamlyn Currin), wine writing offers a dizzying spectrum of practices. No wonder perhaps that ‘wine language’ has often been reflected on by wine writers.
For an academic linguist like me, reflections on wine language are a rich source of insight into how language and wine communication are perceived. Most recently, such a reflection was made by Cong Cong Bo in her article Ultimate Aromatherapy on this website.
As is commonly the case, the author argues that wine vocabulary is exclusionary. Its taxonomies and labelling confuse people. Wine language, in addition, is “woefully inadequate to describe the flavours, sensations, thoughts, and emotions we experience when we drink”. The sommelier says people find it hard to understand what ‘poised’ or ‘elegant’ might mean in reference to wine.
These are not sound arguments, in my vew. The issue of taxonomies and labels is not a linguistic one. Indeed, more drinking (and perhaps more reading) would resolve the issue quickly. In addition, thousands and thousands of wine loving people simply do not care. Wine writers’ relevancies are neither universal, nor even common.
But are words like ‘precision’ or ‘elegance’ exclusionary? Are words like ‘clutch’ or ‘carburettor’ also exclusionary? Are perhaps phrases such as ‘depressive episode’ or ‘myocardial infarction’ (depression and heart attack, respectively, for most of us) exclusionary? I doubt they are. They are words used by people of certain professions with two main goals: communicative and social. Communicatively, they are about precision (e.g., ‘depressive episode’ is different from ‘recurrent depressive episode’, though both are depressions). Socially, such words show help place the speakers in their professions.
Wine is no different and language is not ‘woefully inadequate’ in doing anything. Rather, in modern societies where do not rely on our scent much, we have not needed a particularly elaborate vocabulary for describing aromas. Wine writers, on the other hand, have developed a way of writing that helps them to establish and maintain their identities as wine writers.
Cong Cong Bo’s article is like others in two respects. It mistakes social issues (such as effects of class or levels of education and literacy) for a linguistic issue. It also focuses on a few ‘suspect’ words making such vocabulary the core of ‘language of wine’. Yet, if anything, language of wine is a set of diverse practices in which wine is talked and written about in variety of contexts and with a variety of communicative, social and psychological goals.
In what follows, I would like to offer a little and by no means comprehensive list of what I, a wine loving linguist, see as interesting and perhaps important areas for those exploring the ‘language of wine’.
Who speaks? One of the assumptions made in reflections on wine language is that it is wine writers who are its source. They own it, control it, and it is for them to make changes to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elite wine writers constitute a tiny minority of wine communicators. In fact, it is we, the world’s wine dilettantes, who make narrative representations of wine in the myriad of our daily conversations. And I would suggest that instead of worrying whether we understand you, perhaps you, the writer, could consider worrying whether you understand us.
Contexts. Wine writers’ way of speaking about wine is but a minute part of wine communication which happens continuously in an infinite number of contexts. Meals and aperitifs; dates, family gatherings or wine tastings; wine shops, restaurants, filling stations, and supermarkets, all those contexts require different wine talk, for different goals, from finding a good wine to impressing a loved one.
We can be happy and ecstatic, angry and upset, satisfied and content, apprehensive and nervous. Or disappointed, or gratified. All that when you just talk about wine. Language of wine is infinitely more complex than tasting notes, so often assumed to be the default way of speaking about wine. Exploring those contexts and ways of speaking will help you understand the ‘language of wine’ much better. Do remember, though, language of wine belongs, first and foremost, to the wine oik, not to the wine writer.
The message. When I read wine descriptions, whether reviews or tasting notes, I often wonder about their functions. Are your descriptions more about informing me about a wine or are they perhaps about ‘getting me thirsty’, to put it politely? Are you providing me with a navigation service only or would you like to poke me into buying the wine you describe? As I wonder, I am quite certain I should not have to wonder at all. Wine writers’ messages consist not only of the explicit surface, but also of what is underneath it. How clear is its communicative goal, how explicit its message are important questions to consider when exploring the language of wine.
Who do (elite) writers talk to? Put more directly, do you also talk to me? I have drunk wine for longer than I care to remember, most of the time without paying much attention to taxonomies or labels. But for years now, I have been interested. And I hit the wall, so often I simply do not understand, despite having five advanced research degrees and large vocabularies in two languages. Yet, I should be able to understand, should I not?
The words and phrases are not exclusionary, I know them all. The issue is more that they are bent into descriptions that, I think, have no reference point in the known universe. And so, I continue not to know what dignified wine is, or precise, or pretty, or muscular, let alone feminine or masculine. And while I often doubt the writers themselves actually know what those descriptors mean, I think they require a subscription to the unspoken nonsense contract.
In contrast, consider the other side of the spectrum. Take Oz Clarke’s words about the Grand Inquisitor sherry: “This is the great ascetic, the flagellator, the moaning, keening hermit of Sherries. It is magnificent, but you may have to drink it by yourself, wearing a hood.” This ‘tangential’ way of writing, as he puts it, is so much more attractive than wine posturing. Like in a hypothetical note about, say, the aromas of the Ethiopian strawberry leaf with a whiff of the feather of a Moroccan pigeon which carried it across the Great Rift Valley. The posturing requires a reader with way more commitment than, I suspect, most of us, oiks, can offer.
Point of view. When you think about the language of wine, consider the whole process of communication: who says what and how to whom in what context and with what goal. Consider also that communication is a sophisticated process of selections. From choosing to write in the first place, you inevitably choose which aspects of wine and its surroundings to focus on. Then you choose how to do it. And every single one of those selections allows you to shine a light on the wine from a particular point of view. And so, the final project for those reflecting on the language of wine is the question from what point of view you, the elite writer, write.
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
Bo, Cong Cong, 2024, Ultimate Aromatherapy. https://timatkin.com/ultimate-aromatherapy/
Oz Clarke, 2021, Oz Clarke on Wine. Academie du Vin Library.