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Delhi Wine Club
Feature: The Language of Wine

Posted: Thursday, 10 May 2012 14:31

Feature: The Language of Wine

The process of acquiring a vocabulary with which to describe drinking is fundamental to wine appreciation and only the taster with a suitable lexicon will be able to form his own aesthetic judgement about any given wine, writes Joel Payne from Germany

‘Wine is a language of its own’ explained Sanmei Cheung, the sommelier at the Upper House in Hong Kong as I was drinking Parés-Baltà’s 2009 Grenache ‘Indigena’ from the Penedes region in Spain. Any description of it is by nature a translation.

Indeed, fermented grape juice is not wine, with all its cultural significance, until we regard it as such. Judgements like elegant, past its prime or 92 points are not properties of wines, but metaphors, meanings we have attached to our tasting of them, meanings with lives of their own.

While my understanding of balance, a factor that European experts consider primordial for quality, is rooted in concepts such as acidity, sweetness, bitterness and tannin, other cultures have different value systems through which harmony might be achieved. Taste, in fact, appears to be a part of cultural identity – and there is tentative scientific work to suggest that there is a link between diet and wine preferences.

Northern Europeans find crispness in a wine’s fruit refreshing, but too much alcohol disconcerting; those from the warmer south tend to find higher alcohol levels natural, but view Riesling’s brisk acidity as a sign of lack of ripeness. Thus different appreciations of a given wine may well be, at heart, a clash of worldviews.

The linguistic analysis of tasting notes undertaken by Frédéric Brochet, a cognitive psychologist, suggests that experienced European tasters first place a wine in a category and then select their descriptors from those they link with it. Effectively, they construct a prototypical representation of the wine, like the shadows in Plato’s cave. This is essentially what the classes of the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) are trying to teach - and is the essence of the Master of Wine examination.

The acquisition of expertise means learning the language of wine and that language then shapes our understanding of the product itself. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his Philosophical Investigations, definitions emerge from the context.

More troubling for the novice, though, is the fact that the language of wine is in a state of perpetual change. Reading Shakespeare or Confucius at school may be an important part of our education, but much of that vocabulary is no longer used. The 19th century lexicon excelled in class and gender, but how is a consumer in Mumbai to understand what is meant when Alan Meadows claims that a Musigny from Vogüé has ‘breed’. Similarly, the use of masculine and feminine in the description of wines is metaphorical rather than a precise description of aromatic compounds and relies heavily on shared values extrinsic to the wine itself.

The more mundane Americans swept away generalisations and preferred organoleptical terms, leading to Anne Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel, arranging descriptors into categories and hierarchical tiers to ease education. This structured format has fostered cross-cultural discussion, but comes at the expense of the richness of diverse tasting languages.

Pushing this to an extreme might lead to a machine that would render human palates obsolete. Nonetheless, however well programmed the instrument might be in distinguishing between nuanced aromas and flavours, it would not be able to tell whether an individual taster would prefer one wine to another.

This is where the most difficult element in the language of wine enters the scene, namely that of quality. My love of a fully mature Barolo may be your worship of the dead; your appreciation of luscious ripe fruit might be my vinous prostitution.

On top of that, we humans have an apparent need to anthropomorphise wines. True to his generation, Robert Parker added bits of erotic flourish to his tasting lexicon with words like ‘hedonistic’ and ‘sexy, paving the way for wines to taste ‘ravishing’, ‘seductive’ or ‘overly endowed’.

This is often the difference between North American and European viewpoints. The former is more sensory, the latter more cognitive. The one enjoys the wine for what it is, the other for what he believes it should be, which may be why Asians find it easier to follow the former. Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer and the Wine Spectator all have avid readers in Delhi, Singapore and Tokyo, but few read Alessandro Masnaghetti, Michel Bettane or Joel Payne!

Be that as it may, we must all learn a basic vernacular, perhaps even several, in order to be able to speak about wine at all. However, in Asia our European descriptors are often empty words. Defining one thing that is not understood with another that has little or no more meaning is a pointless exercise. I am reminded of a Western critic’s first contact with Indian dance. He found that it had no ‘vocabulary’, no frame of reference, at least not that he understood. It is like trying to judge poetry in a foreign language.

Jeannie Cho Lee’s book the Asian Palate has made it clear that we need to use descriptors that are understood by our readers. These will be quite different in Italy, Vietnam or Costa Rica. Accordingly, she provides a basic set of words likely to be understood in each Asian country. The Chinese, though, claims Yu-sen Lin, the influential Taiwanese wine writer, “talk more about the texture of wine, less about its aromas.“ Further, he adds, “you think differently when you see characters than when you read words.”

Marcel Proust’s madeleine - a small sponge cake in a shell shape - in his seminal work ‘La Recherche du Temps Perdu’ makes clear that emotion is also an important part of our memory and thus the language we use to describe our experiences. Pushing this a step further, Cain Todd in his book ‚The Philosophy of Wine’ suggests that wine carries meaning and, much like music, even emotion; but the question then arises whether a producer could strive to make a wine that leaves us sad, even makes us cry? For most of us, that would require a leap of faith.

We do, though, live in socially constructed worlds where language plays an important role in forming, explaining and even manipulating our preferences and desires. These will thus be, by nature, quite different in English, French, Hindi or Chinese so that even a translation of this column would change its sense.

Joel B Payne

Joel B. Payne is an American living in Europe since 1979, first in France, now in Germany and Italy. Germany's best sommelier for 3 times, he has had a long career as wine buyer, consultant and managing director of two large import companies and a négociant business in Bordeaux. He has been active as a wine journalist for over 25 years, including a three year stint as editor-in-chief of Meininger's Wine Business International. A regular contributor to Germany's leading wine magazines, Falstaff and Vinum, as well as the World of Fine Wine, Decanter and Steve Tanzer's International Wine Cellar in English, he also writes for various publications in China, Korea and Japan. However, he is best known for his German Wine Guide, which has appeared annually since 1992. A founding member of the Grand Jury Européen, he was also the president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV, from 2007 to 2010.



Timé Dierickxr Says:

What a nice article, a joy for reading. This reflects very well the differences of pallet. Even here in our "small" Belgium there is quite a difference in taste and comment between the Dutch speaking half of Belgium and the French speaking part. I loved it.

Posted @ May 22, 2012 15:10


Yegas Says:

Powerful and well written addressing a very difficult aspect of wine tasting and appreciation. Enjoyed the read

Posted @ May 17, 2012 10:35


Niladri Dhar Says:

What an amazing read...this insightful and informative article made my day. "This is often the difference between North American and European viewpoints. The former is more sensory, the latter more cognitive. The one enjoys the wine for what it is, the other for what he believes it should be, which may be why Asians find it easier to follow the former." - bang on!! Couldn't agree more...simply brilliant! Cheers, Niladri Dhar

Posted @ May 14, 2012 15:10


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