I’m very interested in the language we use to describe wine.
Could it be that our possession of descriptors for wine actually shapes the way that we experience wine? Can language shape perception?
I have just looked through my first wine notebook. It dates back to when I was first getting into wine, just after I’d finished my PhD and started work. Here’s an example of one of the notes:
Charles Melton Shiraz 1987
Drunk 25 May 1993
Chocolately, concentrated, full flavoured spicy Shiraz. Excellent.
Reading through the other notes, it’s clear I had very little vocabulary for wine. You learn to associate words for wine. Do the words that you learn shape your perceptual experience in some way?
In written language, letters, which are visual sensations, are turned into words. We are so familiar with this that to have it pointed out to us seems absurd. As soon as we see words on a page, these visual sensations become loaded with meaning. Think of a love letter, or a tax demand: the visual sensations almost immediately stimulate an emotional response in us.
[As an aside, the written word has enabled the development of a complex society. It enables us to use pencil and paper, or laptop computers, as an extension of our mental space. We can share with others our thoughts, and use these devices as tools to store, and then add to, moment to moment thoughts, thus in time building an article or idea in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.]
In wine writing, we do the opposite. We attempt to turn our conscious perception elicited by a flavour, but added to by our memory and learning, into letters on a page, which we hope will in some way convey our perceptions to others who lack the same flavour stimulus. We are attempting to share, in as transparent way as possible, our own private world of perception. What are the most effective, and legitimate ways of doing this? Should we enlist figurative language in descriptions of wine?
A fascinating academic project is underway at the Department of Modern Languages, University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, involving Drs Ernesto Suarez-Toste, Rosario Caballero and Raquel Segovia, entitled Translating the Senses: Figurative Language in Wine Discourse. The initial stage of the project involves collecting a data set consisting of 12 000 tasting notes, from a range of British and American publications (Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine News, Decanter and Wineanorak.com). This text is cut, pasted and cleared of all extra information. The types of metaphors used are tagged, and then a concordance is used to track each instance of any type of metaphor of interest.
‘Wine folks use metaphor all the time,’ say Suarez-Toste. ‘Aromawheels are OK for identifying aromas, but the structure and mouthfeel almost always demand the use of figurative language. It has nothing to do—at least not necessarily—with waxing poetical about something sublime; we use metaphor (and synaesthesia, metonymy, etc.) even for the most average grape juice around,’ he states.
‘For one thing we personify wine most of the time. Not simply by saying it has a nose instead of a smell. It has character, it’s endowed with human virtues and vices. It can be generous, sexy, voluptuous, whimsical, shy, demure, bold or aggressive. We almost cannot conceive wine without personifying it.’
We reach for metaphors because of the impoverished language we have for describing tastes and smells. ‘Because there is no single lexicon with the expressive potential to cover all the range of sensorial impressions, the intellectualization of sensorial experience is inextricably linked to the figurative uses of language,’ explains Suarez-Toste. ‘There is no problem with this as far as such areas of human life as poetry are concerned, but the inherent subjectivity of sensorial experience represents innumerable difficulties when technical discourse is under scrutiny.’
What about the good old tasting note? ‘This relies heavily on a combination of terms articulating the remembrance of the taster’s repository of aromas and flavours, connotations and, above all, figurative language which, although may be perceived by the layman as deliberate obscurity, is a valuable tool that allows the (only partially satisfactory) communication of the experience of tasting wine. The vocabulary used points to various figurative phenomena (synaesthesia, metonymy, metaphor), all of which are indispensable tools for articulating what is an intrinsically sensorial experience.’
So we have wine as a living creature; wine as a piece of cloth and wine as a building. It’s easy to make fun of this sort of description, but such metaphors are borne of necessity. While we’d like to have a more exact way of sharing our experience of wine in words, such precision doesn’t exist, and those who restrict themselves merely to naming aromas and flavours end up missing out on some of the more important aspects of the character of wines that can’t be described in this way, such as texture, structure, balance and elegance.
You can read an example of Suarez-Toste’s work here.