Male, Female or Nonbinary? Who's gendering wine?

Can or should a wine be 'masculine' or 'feminine' or even 'non binary'? Robert Joseph steps into the minefield of wine descriptors and categories.

Male, Female, Nonbinary, Gender Neutral
Male, Female, Nonbinary, Gender Neutral

“These two wines are what I call Adam and Eve – masculine and feminine.” I clearly remember a charming old lady called Jeanne Ferret talking about two examples of Pouilly-Fuissé from very different soils of her estate. It was the very early 1980s and she was a pioneer in bottling wines from individual parcels of that appellation, intent on explaining how each had a character that was influenced by the limestone, granite or clay on which the grapes were grown.

Mme Ferret’s way of gendering wine was far from unusual in those days, especially in Burgundy, and in France it’s still surprisingly current. Nearly four decades on, Dico du Vin, ‘le Dictionnaire du Vin en Ligne’, is still helpfully telling its online readers that “It is commonly accepted that some wines, regardless of who produced them, are more feminine and that others possess qualities normally attributed to men.”

To avoid any doubt, the author, who apparently wrote these words as recently as 2016, explains that “a masculine wine is defined as powerful, robust, full-bodied… with more body and tannins. In contrast, a feminine wine is more round, supple, subtle, elegant and easy to drink.”

“Burgundy” we are told “produces feminine wines while Bordeaux has the prerogative of making masculine ones.” (My italics.)

Somehow, I doubt that an English-language ‘wine dictionary’ would be saying this kind of thing today but, as I learned from a recent panel discussion in Punchdrink.com, ‘Nonbinary’ is apparently a term now used by a wine bar in New York to describe wines that are neither red nor white.

It has also been adopted by Cult Wine, a retailer in Auckland, New Zealand, that specialises in natural wines.

Non-binary wine, its website explains “embraces” /pink… as well as “other fantastic ways to redefine the world of wine. Skin-fermented… hipster interlopers… field blends…sweet and dessert wines which again can be made in almost every hue.”

I’m not sure why the adoption of this term should be less potentially offensive to some people than ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Indeed, I can see why it would logically be more so, but then Cult Wine happily uses ‘MindFuck Alert’ to describe “wines that really break the boundaries and challenge the very notion of what wine can and should be.” So maybe avoidance of offence isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Eryka V, one of the Punchdrink panelists, who is global director of culture & community, Blue Bottle Coffee, Oakland, California and identifies as they/them, certainly was offended. “Saying that using nonbinary to describe something that’s ‘different’ or ‘other,’ … [is] violent and harmful… we [should] get back to where it’s gender-neutral at all times for everything.”

As someone who was never really comfortable with wine being masculine or feminine, I sympathise with this view. But I struggled with some of the other comments Eryka and the other US Punchdrink panellists had to make about the best way to describe wine.

Luke Wylde, winemaker at Abbey Road Farm and owner of Statera Cellars and Lares Wines in  Oregon, suggested that using food descriptors of the kind included on the flavour wheel “limits people’s experience based on privilege”. Not everybody who grew up in a specific environment, he goes on, “is going to know what currants taste like.”

I would have thought that restaurant-goers in the Pacific North West who’ve never encountered a dried grape are probably rare, but some references to flavours on a chart designed for Westerners will, indeed, often be meaningless to those who’ve grown up in China or India, for example

Describing wines as ‘experiences’ can be similarly problematic, as Drew Record, managing partner at Chezchez restaurant in San Francisco, explained: “There’s a wine that I like to describe as like driving down Highway 1 with the wind blowing through my hair, but that’s also a privileged experience. Someone has to have been able to have the chance to have driven down Highway 1.”

Clearly, there's no place for imagination in the new world of wine communication.

Likening wines to movie stars as I once did in a wine primer, is dismissed by Record for the same reasons: “Not everyone’s going to be able to connect to that.” And maybe he's being a little fairer here. Familiarity with Marilyn Monroe is less widespread than it used to be, while Elizabeth Banks may ring a bell with fewer older wine drinkers. 

Kae Whalen, wine consultant and host of ‘Gay Wine,’ Los Angeles, had what they considered to be a better solution. Instead of trying to describe an experience that someone else might not share, somms should “describe how this wine came into being… to connect that person to the process of the person that created it.” This struck a chord with another panellist who said

“It’s the people, it’s the hands that have been involved in making this wine that we as somms or wine sellers are to communicate.”

Really?

Could one usefully apply that model to describing Beethoven’s seventh symphony or Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue? Or a Paul Klee painting? Would knowing the deaf genius’s or arrogant trumpeter’s character or ambition really convey very much of an impression of those pieces of music?

I’m very glad to have given up wine criticism 15 years ago, but throughout the over two decades when I held down that job, there were always debates over wine language. There were those who favoured fruit, flower, earth and animal-based descriptors; the ones who preferred poetic analogy; and the others who insisted on technical terms.

All of these worked on some members of an audience, and failed with others. There were faces at public tastings that lit up with recognition when I talked about the raspberry character I said I found in a Pinot Noir. And faces that remained blank or puzzled – and not because their owners had never tasted a raspberry. Today, some people know exactly what I mean when I liken the Languedoc Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend I’m involved in producing as being my rock-and-roll wine. And some, I’m sure, don’t.

The process of attempting to describe wine is, to adapt a famous Frank Zappa line, “dancing about architecture”, and the choreography certainly changes over time. In the 1980s, British wine writers used terms like ‘racy’, ‘breed’ and ‘grip’ that have fallen out of favour, and I doubt younger French tasters are as ready as their forebears to liken wine to ‘dentelle’ – lace. Aubert de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti probably doesn’t compare mature Burgundy to “vieilles fesses” (old buttocks) these days as he once memorably did to me. Today’s wine drinkers are expected to understand ‘funk’, ‘mineral’ and ‘struck match’, and the Punchdrink panellists are absolutely right in questioning that expectation. But I don’t think they’ve found the holy grail either.

People do want to know how a wine tastes, but it shouldn't be too hard to convey at least an impression without risking offence.

Over the next 20 or 40 years, I hope gendering wine will have become as forgotten as terms like ‘breed’ and ‘racy’ are today.

But… and here it gets decidedly tricky, if old Madame Ferret were to return from the grave bearing two glasses of her wine, and to challenge me to say which was Adam and which was Eve, I’ve a guilty feeling I’d know which was which.

That’s how language works, and it ain’t always pretty.

Robert Joseph 

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