The Language of Wine, a guest post by Sage Behan

Sage Behan is a 2016 graduate of SOU with a degree in English and Creative Writing.

Fran Lebowitz, an author and social critic, once said, “great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.” While I’d rather not address the implications of her quote on this paper, Ms. Leibowitz has perfectly captured the over all sentiment of wine drinkers–specifically novice wine drinkers–towards the culture of wine, especially in America, where people simultaneously ridicule the snobby, elitist class of wine-consumers and also toss around the phrase “wine mom” and make jokes like “they say a glass of wine a day is good for you…the bottle is glass, right?” while picking up a box of Verdange at their local 7/11. For the average person–specifically, the average American–the world of wine is a world of exclusion, made so mostly by the language used by so-called “experts”. In fact, many novices feel that because they “cannot speak about its taste in a professional manner, [they] usually consider themselves as ‘not knowing anything about wine’” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 187). However, “wine language” is not some sacred, special patois that has been used across generations and around the world. Rather, the current way people talk about wine is a fairly recent phenomenon, and it may not be as exclusive as it first appears. Instead, it appears that “wine language” is just a tool for experiencing wine in a different way, and not actually necessary for appreciation of it.

Wine Vocabulary

Currently, the vocabulary of wine is as rich and full as any other jargon or parlance, with different groups of words for describing the over all taste of the wine, as well as various other traits, such as the volume, mouthfeel, weight, length, temperature, the region the wine originated from, the way it was made, the length of time it has aged or oxygenated, and so on. The most critical parts of the wine glossary are taste and smell descriptors, for which there seem to be a never-ending collection of ever-more creative terms including normal, useful words and phrases like “tannic”, “fruity” and “acidic”, as well as bizarre descriptors such as “dumb”, “crunchy”, “forthcoming”, and “foxy”. For the most part, however, the words used to describe the taste of wine can sufficiently describe a taste in a way that is not so bizarre it leaves drinkers wondering how in the world someone knew what foxes taste like. Many descriptors are also reflections of each other, in either a positive or negative way: “‘crisp’ is hedonic positive and is used instead of ‘acidic,’ even though the meanings of these words are very similar” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 193).

Adrienne Lehrer, author of Wine and Conversation asserts, “although we talk about the taste of wine, in fact what we perceive is a fusion of taste, smell, and texture” (Lehrer 6). As a result, many of the words used to describe wine do not fall under “flavor” type words (which tend to be types of foods, rather than tastes such as sweet or sour), but abstract ideas. Wine may be subtle, elegant, silky, or have a bite or a short finish.

While there exist a countless amount of words to describe wine, there are only a handful that tend to get tossed around most often, and of those, the words tend to get re-used between similar wines. Brochet and Dubourdieu explain, “when the taster speaks of a specific wine describing flavors, he or she mainly uses a series of words he or she has used previously for this category of wine and is not describing the specific wine” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 192). On top of that, many wine words fall under the same umbrella categories, according to Adrienne Lehrer, who writes “[wine vocabulary] is not just a list but rather a set of expressions that can be analyzed in terms of several dimensions. Many dimensions are interrelated, such as balance with acidity and sweetness” (Lehrer 18). While this means the descriptions of wines are less unique to the wine, it may, in fact, be a good thing: “if specific wines were described independently there would be many more word groups…” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 192). Instead, the vocabulary of wine is one of organization and specificity, and created to make the experience of wine drinking a little more inclusive.

Language Use

For the most part, the advent of a language specifically for wine is useful between wine experts, but also to bridge the gap between wine producers and the average consumer: “winemakers, professional critics, enologists, and amateurs have built a…vocabulary that they use to describe sensory properties of wine [which they use to] exchange sensory data among themselves and to analyze their information for other uses” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 187). Although there is a common misconception that the way experts talk about wine exists to make wine more inaccessible to the general public–especially in older variations of wine language, which involved referencing previous vintages a la “the 1978 Cheval Blanc is most like the ’72, though it has some characteristics of the ’68” (Gray) which don’t actually describe the wine at all–the fact is that “tasting notes also often accompany advertising documents or price lists… [and] are destined for the general public and should have a sense of the professional meaning of the wine vocabulary which should help individuals to appreciate the quality and the sensory values of a given wine” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 187). And while there may be some level of superiority in groups of wine experts, “experience has been shown to influence the use of wine tasting language which in turn affects the communicative value of the description” (Gawel 269). Because of this, it seems that as long as it’s done well, the language used to describe wines–especially with taste words that the average wine-drinker can identify, such as blackberry and chocolate–is meant to make the world of wine easier to navigate.

International Wine Linguistics

Despite the fact that wine vocabulary is extensive and intricate, the way wine is described–and thus, the taste of wine–is not necessarily an international experience. In old-world wine countries, wine is not described by taste or feeling of the wine, but by region or the experience of drinking the wine. While consuming a glass in France, “…the French drinker is thinking about the regions of Burgundy or Bordeaux” (Gray). One the other hand, French wine shares similarly metaphor-driven descriptions of wine with America, but in places like Italy, many people “may be bewildered by the adjective ‘big,’ which pops up in every American wine publication” (Gray). Italian wine drinkers are also more inclined to use what Americans would consider “negative” words like acidic or sour as a positive, or at least neutral description of a wine. Still in other countries, like China, where wine may not be a part of the traditional cuisine, wine isn’t described by taste, but by the mouth feel and the experience: “…it is important to talk about mouth feel, because Chinese people take that very seriously in food—so much so that they can describe mouth feel in ways that Americans have never even considered… you would want to use very specific words about how [wine] feels in the mouth” (Gray).

This means, writes W. Blake Gray, that “not only are we not speaking the same language; we may not even be having the same experience” (Gray). For those wine drinkers who see authentic and specific description of a wine as a sign of knowledge, this is bad news. However, for the rest of us, it certainly breaks down the barrier of exclusivity in the wine world.

The Wine Metaphor

Part of the reason American wine language is so difficult for novice wine drinkers to use is because of the metaphor included in the description of wines. According to Ernesto Suarez-Toste, author of Metaphor Inside the Wine Cellar: On the Ubiquity of Personification Schemas in Winespeak, “the incredibly wide range of aromas in wine is probably what attracts most neophytes to this beverage, but because the identification and naming of aromas in a wine is mainly a matter of experience and memory, the use of metaphors is particularly important in the description of a wine’s texture” (Suarez-Toste 54). Although there are a great many different individual flavor and texture words to describe the taste of wine–not to mention a whole wheel of adjectives classified in different ways to make the whole process easier– “if there is one inescapable schema in this context, that is surely anthropomorphic metaphor” (Suarez-Toste 54). Wine is often described metaphorically as a living organism, in the way metaphors of time are associated with money: “…we find that the combination… of alcohol, acids and tannin in a red wine is commonly labeled as its body and the tannins… supporting it as its backbone or spine” (Suarez-Toste 58). Further, “it is far from surprising to find different wine components referred to as its nose, palate, or legs…” (Suarez-Toste 58). Not only is there a whole anatomical schema in the language of wine– “big-bodied, robust, fleshy, backbone, sinewy, long-limbed, fat, flabby… lean, or disjointed”–there exists also “‘kinship’ relationships among wines (e.g. clone, pedigree, sister, mate, sibling or peer)” (Suarez-Toste 58). Ironically, before the current iteration of wine language, wine was occasionally described using comparisons to celebrities, such as “a famous one from a magazine called Wine X[:] ‘Tastes like Brad Pitt stepping out of the shower’” (Gray), so the theme of wine as alive doesn’t seem to be a new idea.


The language of wine is a vast, varied array of words and structures and ideas and metaphors. It exists as a tool, but occasionally acts as a hinderance in the average person’s understanding of wine culture. However, being able to speak fluently about the full-bodiedness of a wine, or it’s oak-barrel after-taste is not necessarily going to make one’s experience of drinking wine better than that of a person who proudly proclaims that a wine “tastes like wine”.

Works Cited

Brochet, Frédéric, and Denis Dubourdieu. “Wine descriptive language supports cognitive specificity of chemical senses”. Brain and Language 77.2 (2001): 187-196.

Gawel, Richard. “The use of language by trained and untrained experienced wine Tasters.” Journal of Sensory studies 12.4 (1997): 267-284.

Gray, W. Blake. “Tip of the Tongue: The Words We Use to Describe Wine “Changes” How It Tastes.” California. Cal Alumni Association UC Berkeley, Dec. 2011. Web.

Lehrer, Adrienne. “Talking About Wine.” Language 51.4 (1975): 901-23. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2016.

Solomon, Gregg Eric Arn. “Psychology of Novice and Expert Wine Talk.” The American Journal of Psychology 103.4 (1990): 495-517. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2016.

Suárez Toste, Ernesto. “Metaphor inside the wine cellar: On the ubiquity of personification schemas in winespeak.” Metaphorik. de 12.1 (2007): 53-64.

Teague, Lettie. “An Insider’s Guide to Weird Wine Words.” Wall Street Journal. 28 Dec. 2015. Web. 06 June 2016.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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