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On the Madness of Wine and Language

By Karen MacNeil
July 1, 2016

Wine’s closest companion for the last 8,000 years has been food. The two are so close that they are often thought of as inseparable. In Italy for example, when someone drinks too much, they don’t say, he drank too much. They say, he hasn’t eaten enough food yet. (Perfect right?)

But despite their ties, wine and food differ in two very critical ways. First, in food, flavor always follows aroma. If you smell a peach, you are 100% certain you are going to taste peach flavor. But in wine, flavor does not always follow from aroma. You might smell blackberries and licorice say, but when you taste the wine, it tastes like damp earth and dark chocolate. This is especially true of really good wines. No one knows why it happens, but a wine’s aroma can be on Path A; while its flavor is on Path B.

The second way that wine differs from food is in language. Food is its own language and wine is not. So if I give you a strawberry and say what does this taste like? You say it tastes like a strawberry. Great. We are agreed. It is a strawberry. It tastes like a strawberry. And we call that flavor strawberry. But if I give you a vernaccia and ask what does this taste like, and you say vernaccia….well, that’s not helpful. Wine is not its own language.

Because there’s no good way to describe wine flavor, most of us resort to comparing a wine’s flavor to objects in our world–the sort of objects whose meanings are generally agreed upon. We might say, for example, that a wine tastes like cherries or like lemons. In fact, if we couldn’t use metaphors like those, our wine vocabulary would probably shrink to just a few words that describe the basic tastes we all share (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savory).

Faced with the lack of a universal, well-understood language to describe wine flavor, it’s not surprisingly that wine writers like me invented their own. Of course, you might find some descriptions a bit over-the-top (it’s a precocious little wine and its femininity is alluring….). But the truth is that these creative, if idiosyncratic, attempts to describe wine do carry some meaning that can orient the taster. Most people for example, know what’s meant when a wine is described as powerful, massive, or soft. Describing a wine as being as “soft as flannel pajamas” is just going one step further in the attempt to be helpful.

What I find most fascinating about creative descriptions, however, has to do with what linguists call semantic field theory, namely that words related to one idea all shift when one of them is used in a new way. The best example of this is the use of words related to the human body to describe wine. A person can be heavy or light. The first time wine was described as heavy or light, it opened the door for all sorts of other “body descriptions” for the taste of wine. Today, for example, you see wines described as thin, fat, curvaceous, sinewy, sleek, muscular, lean, chunky, bosomy, brawny, and so on.

In the end, using metaphors to describe wine may be an imperfect method—but it’s our only way to talk to one another about wine and to share the deliciousness in the glass.