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The Language of Wine

As younger generations—from all over the planet—enter the pool of wine drinkers, traditional, English-based ‘Wine-Speak’ is increasingly less relevant


Geek recently described a wine to a young acquaintance, saying something like: ‘lean, but balanced overall’ and their reply was ‘you wine geeks and your wine speak; tell me in English’. We were sorta surprised: we thought that was English. Geek is proud of the little handful of post-nominals he has earned over the years, confirming to the world that he has an advanced base of knowledge about wine, sake & spirits. Though the criteria for attaining these titles is overwhelmingly based on knowledge of grapes, wine production and appellations, it is the communicating of this information where we sometimes leave some people behind.

As with almost any other industry, there is a lexicon for wine. Folks that write computer code use terms and acronyms that would be meaningless to Americans at large. Ditto stock-traders who use terms like short-selling, puts, margin calls, et cetera; happily, we can just say ‘401k please’. Of course, wine names—which are frequently place names in foreign countries—should not be construed as part of the wine-speak we are referring to: if a wine hails from Bardolino, one will just have to catalogue that in their mental files and try to remember what it is and where it comes from.  No, we are referring to the descriptors for wine: verbal descriptions of how a wine looks, tastes or smells. Not only is it challenging to describe a taste or a smell to someone (what does crunchy, or full-bodied, or lean mean?) Imagine trying to describe Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to someone…with words. Describing the taste of a wine is almost as impossible as this, but of course, there is no shortage of people that try. This is a long-time favorite from a highly regarded wine writer:

Initially shows a gunpowder-like reductive pungency, which segues into aromatic impressions of lemon rind, quince, chalk dust, apple pip, radish, and musky narcissus. Fresh apple, quince, white peach, and lemon notes on a subtly oily and texturally almost custard-like – yet, simultaneously, and incongruously refreshing and electrically-bright –palate perpetuate an impression of utmost pungency, with persistent, invigorating suggestions of these fruits skin and rind as well as radish and musk. The vibrantly interactive, citric, no-malo, no-holds-barred finish here is liable to lift you right out of your seat (and you may want to applaud while you’re standing). Yet there are subtleties and intricacies to this wine’s flavor interaction that will compel and reward return visits, and its underlying scallop, and nut oil richness are never eclipsed by the glare of high acid. Try following an open bottle for a day or two – if you can muster the requisite self-control. You’ll have trouble locating a more sensational value than this in the world of wine, not to mention that it will merit a decade or more of devotion.

Even most wine geeks find descriptions like these bewildering, but again, what words would you use to describe Rachmaninoff’s music?

Lately—in this era of globalization and improved inclusion—much of the criticism of wine-speak isn’t about ‘insider terms’ or the exhaustive lists of grapes and appellations; it is that the language of wine is the English language and/or that much of wine’s history and establishment was built around the 1%. To be sure, for much of history, the purchase/collection of wine was indeed limited mostly to affluent countries & cultures, but wine has become exponentially more democratized, i.e., available and affordable over the past 100 years. And sorry, but we don’t agree that describing a wine that has ‘aromas of dark chocolate’ is exclusionary to ‘someone that cannot afford chocolate’. If they cannot afford the chocolate, they likely cannot afford the wine. For sure, using ‘common’ descriptors such as gooseberry to describe a N.Z. Sauvignon Blanc might fall on deaf ears to someone who has never tasted a gooseberry (which is most people). But another common (and acceptable) description used for these wines is ‘cat’s pee’. Those that don’t own cats are–likely happily—left out of understanding this description. The English language dominance is accurate, but there are reasons for this: though England is not considered to be a wine-producing country, the English have been involved in the wine trade for centuries, even before it was the industry as we know it today. They helped establish standards and protocols for trading wine throughout the world. Indeed, the three most important educational/certification bodies are allocated in London: The Institute of Masters of Wine, The Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and the Court of Master Sommeliers. For a long time, if a Spanish-speaking or Japanese speaking person wanted to pursue accreditation from one of these groups, they had the added burden of doing it in a language foreign to them. But that is not the case any longer; thank you Google Translate.  

At the end of the day, we think part of the allure of wine is that it is so subjective; taste is personal and ‘affordable’ means different things to different people. And if one person chooses to describe a wine as ‘full-bodied and brooding’, and another declares it tastes like ‘blueberry jam on sourdough toast’, we’re just happy they are drinking wine together.

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