The evolving language of wine

WSET student with pen and laptop

Is wine vocabulary too Eurocentric? A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

Think about all those TV cooking shows. What is their weakest element? Surely it’s when the expert tasters try to describe what they are tasting. All too often we have to content ourselves with their ‘delicious’, ‘yummy’ or just ‘mmm!’.

As I know only too well, taste is almost impossible to describe. The process of tasting is so hidden, so private, so internal that the impressions that result from it cannot be extracted and observed by anyone else to be compared and discussed. Which leaves professional tasters such as wine writers like me, and tea tasters, even parfumiers, grasping for parallels between the flavours and aromas they are sensing with those of actual objects. Fruits and flowers are especially popular in this context.

What is less subjective, for wine anyway, is what can be measured analytically: levels of alcohol, acidity, sweetness and tannin – all of which can be sensed by the tasting equipment in our mouths as well as in a lab. In my tasting notes I try to highlight any extremes in these features of a wine, what one might call its vital statistics, as well as observations on its state of maturity and what I reckon of its quality.

But it’s the aromas, or flavours, that are so difficult to describe, even though the equipment in our noses is so much more sophisticated than that in our mouths. We have hundreds of odour receptors at the top of our noses that can detect the millions of molecules, volatile aroma compounds, that make up what food scientist Harold McGee calls the osmocosm (from the ancient Greek for smell, osme) in his latest book, Nose Dive, which explores it in forensic detail.

Over the last few decades, as interest in wine has grown exponentially, descriptions of wine – so-called tasting notes – have become ever more extravagant, typically including, sometimes comprising, a long list of flavours. All this is in stark contrast to the pithy description in James Thurber’s famous 1937 cartoon: ‘It’s a naïve domestic burgundy without any breeding but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption’.

Consumers are more likely nowadays to encounter ‘dried strawberry, iodine, oyster shell, wet earth, fresh mushrooms, flowers, ripe dark peaches and nectarines’ or rich blood plum flavours intersected with blackberry with a spicy edge and some flinty, graphite notes.’

Yet change is coming. As Esther Mobley, wine writer of the San Francisco Chronicle, put it when introducing a session on tasting notes in the recent Professional Wine Writers Symposium, ‘there is widespread agreement that the language we use to talk about wine is broken’.

The beauty of this year’s symposium was that instead of being attended by a dozen wine writers in the Napa Valley’s luxurious resort Meadowood, it was online and open to a far wider cross-section of wine communicators than ever before, from all over the globe. Hence widespread disgruntlement at the way wine language is so dominated by Western norms.

As the London-based, English editor or co-author of at least three standard wine reference books, I am presumably in the direct line of fire. As must be the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the global leader in wine education, whose courses are studied in more than 70 countries, but which is also based in London. In the 1990s, long after I worked my way up the WSET ladder in the late 1970s, a standardised ‘systematic approach to tasting wine’ was devised by the WSET, in which students are encouraged to use a fairly limited set of descriptors. Because the WSET provides the foundation for so many wine lovers’ knowledge, these few descriptors dominate many wine drinkers’ vocabulary. Yet they are far from perfect. From Asia, for example, where WSET is now such a powerful force, there have been complaints that some of the fruits mentioned – gooseberries come up a lot – are virtually unknown there.

According to WSET CEO Ian Harris they started on a plan to move away from the Eurocentricity of their tasting vocabulary last year but, not least because many of their course materials are printed, the results are unlikely to be seen for quite a while.

Now that at long last the ethnicity of wine consumers, wine students and wine media is widening, with white skin and red trousers becoming slightly less prevalent, the calls for wine writing that is, in the words of the Wine Writers Symposium programme, ‘more creative, accessible, and inclusive’ are increasingly strident. According to Haitian American Regine Rousseau, who runs the marketing platform Shall We Wine and was a member of the panel moderated by Mobley, ‘there’s room for the poetic as well as for traditional tasting notes. But most of all we need to make room for other voices and cultures'.

As account development manager in the Americas for WSET, Barbadian American Deniece Bourne was in a difficult position and defended her organisation’s tasting vocabulary on the basis that it is comprehensible to the greatest number of their students. And of course the needs of students and examiners are very different from those of a wine writer or even most wine drinkers. But it was clear she was also itching for change. ‘People want experiences now. I think you should bring your own to the wine.’

The panel certainly did when asked to describe the same wine … Rousseau conjured up molasses, wet coconut shell, Scotch bonnet pepper and more. I was cheered when Joseph Hernandez, born in the Philippines and raised in California, mentioned Robitussin in his tasting note as I quite often find aromas in wines that I associate with cough linctus. Hernandez’s day job involves ensuring the language used in Bon Appétit magazine will pass muster with the most woke reader.

Everyone agreed that there is considerable work to be done on wine vocabulary, but the greatest scorn was reserved for tasting descriptors such as ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’ and ‘sexy’. Hernandez in particular resented anyone’s assumption that they knew what he regarded as sexy.

I guiltily did a quick search of the 200,000+ tasting notes published on since 2000 and – sure enough – found 192 masculines, 147 feminines and 37 sexys, although many of them were quotes from producers, or were preceded by the get-out ‘stereotypically’.

So how to proceed from here? None of us can escape our personal ethnicity nor our personal experiences. Having written nearly 100,000 of those tasting notes, I’m sure I’m guilty of writing a good portion of extremely dull ones. I certainly agree that intensely personal reactions to individual wines are much more interesting than long lists of flavours. I don’t honestly think anyone gets up in the morning intent on searching out a wine that tastes of, say, dried strawberry, iodine, oyster shell, wet earth et al. And the fact that we all vary considerably in our sensitivities to various compounds make these impressions ineluctably personal anyway. More useful surely is to alert people to whether a wine is especially tart, old, strong, syrupy etc. And to describe it if possible by telling its story, or the story of one’s interaction with it.

I’m sure it would not fit into the WSET’s systematic approach but I love it if a wine has such a strong personality that I can’t stop myself anthropomorphising it – which may infuriate or puzzle some readers, but at least it can help to distinguish it.

As McGee, a keen observer of tasting notes, commented in a recent email, ‘Now all the good stuff seems to be "expressive" and "precise" and "linear". Oddly more and more abstract – maybe a symptom of our digital times?’

There are undoubtedly fashions in tasting terms. I provide observations on just a few current favourites as well as some of the basics.

Some fashionable wine tasting terms

Linear  Newish term that may be associated with a lack of weight in the mouth, no extraneous elements such as unfashionable oak, plus perhaps elevated acidity?

Drive  A new term. A wine that has drive could be linear with a bit more weight.

Mineral  Ah, books and papers could be written, have been written, about this one. Tastes like something associated with stones, rocks or the chemistry lab.

Saline  Very fashionable term that verges on mineral with a bit more saltiness.

Racy  I’m guilty of using this quite frequently for wines that seem particularly fresh but with some ageing potential.

Energetic  A racy wine with drive?

Precise  Conforms to the taster’s view of what that sort of wine should taste like.

Common tasting terms – a bluffer’s guide

Crisp  Just the right level of acidity.

Finish  The sensation at the end of the tasting process; the more prolonged and persistent the better.

Flabby  Not enough acidity – unappetising.

Fruity  Has become a euphemism for ‘a bit sweet’.

Full bodied  Has a high level of alcohol, or at least tastes like it does.

Green  Underripe fruit.

Hard  Too much tannin and/or not enough fruit.

Interesting  No wine producer wants to hear this. It means the taster can’t think of anything more laudatory.

Long  A wine with a persistent finish.

Nose  A noun meaning the aroma of a wine, as in ‘muted nose’.

Oaky  Smells of oak; used to be a compliment but is now regarded as pejorative.

Round  No obvious tannin.

Short  A wine that cuts off suddenly as soon as you’ve swallowed or spat it out.

Tart  Too acid.

Join the language debates on our Members' forum.

Image © 2021 Wine & Spirit Education Trust.