The language of wine

Should China adopt a Western lexicon of wine, or one forged by its own people? Jeni Port looks at the thorny issue of translation.

Young Shi, Jeremy Oliver
Young Shi, co-founder of TasteSpirit, Shanghai; Jeremy Oliver, Australian wine writer

Western wine writers have a colourful way with words. A Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc might taste like “a bungee jump into a gooseberry bush.” Or at least it did to New Zealand wine writer Bob Campbell MW. For half a century, Englishman Hugh Johnson has invoked some of the wine world’s great metaphors. To him, a Louis Michel Chablis once tasted like “a river running over stones, long-simmered greengages and honey, almost like a phantom Sauternes”. Magnificent flights of imagination are common from Britain’s Oz Clarke: “It reminds me,” he once wrote of a Barossa Shiraz, “of plums left too late for picking as they leak syrup through their skins and wasps mob the bough.” 

Making headway through the labyrinth of Western wine language is hard enough for native speakers but in China, the task is made more difficult by the need for translation. As the publishers of Western wine books, sites and magazines race to do business in the world’s fastest growing wine market, authors are handing their work over to translators. Not only do they often have little or no control over the process, but many Western wine terms mean little in the Chinese vernacular or, worse, are beyond translation.

Which begs the question: how can Chinese translators accurately portray Western wine language?

Make a choice

The first rule for translation is choose a method, either literal or interpretative. The interpretative avoids geeky wine-speak in favour of more general associations with things familiar to the Chinese, like tea. “They understand tea,” explains Australian wine commentator Jeremy Oliver. “So they understand texture, acidity, extraction. If you can talk about wine in a way that talks about a sense of place, a sense of harmony, texture, spice, sensation, they absolutely get it.”

Among those who prefer a literal approach is Young Shi, who oversees the Chinese translations and brand management for leading British writer Jancis Robinson. “Given the top-class professionalism and positioning of Jancis’ website, we stick to a strictly academic approach,” says Shi, who is co-founder and educator at the TasteSpirit wine academy and wine media service in Shanghai. “The only target is to correctly communicate what Jancis wants to share, and effectively fits into the Chinese ways of expression. I firmly believe in keeping the translation as authentic as possible.”

Coincidentally, Australia’s top-selling wine author, James Halliday, was recently asked by a Chinese translator working out of the anthropology department of a Californian university for the meaning of various tasting terms in his book The Wine Companion. The answer was simply to provide her with a copy of Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine. “All terms in common use are dealt with in her book,” he adds.

The second rule for translation: know your audience and be guided by it. Hong Kong-based Jeannie Cho Lee MW chooses native or regional Chinese speakers, depending on where she is working, or specialist wine translators. And, yes, the latter do exist. If the message is wine education, she says, then an academic approach is the correct way to go “to get the words as close to the original text as possible without distortion and without losing the original meaning”. If the goal is to educate and entertain, then a translation with less technical and academic terms is better. “If it is for wine sales,” she says, “then choosing a translation style that is more creative and emotional may work better.”

Leading Australian winemaker Peter Gago, of Penfolds, has been presenting tastings in China for more than two decades and while he embraces the use of translators, he also brings a personal approach which he believes can assist with context. “I always utilise as many pics (photos, illustrations) and numbers as possible,” he says. Gago also uses what he calls “the common language of food” as a communication tool, as well as music. In 2015, the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra was engaged for the global Penfolds Collection launch in Shanghai.

The third possibility for translation is setting yourself and your translator free by writing directly for the Chinese audience and using references familiar in China. When Mark Pygott MW, who has lived and worked in Taiwan as a wine professional for five years, decided to write his first wine book, it was for Chinese speakers. France In 33 Glasses: A Field Guide to French Wine, launched in May in Taiwan, is a mix of Pygott’s words accompanied by quirky Tintin-esque illustrations from his friend Michael O’Neill. The book’s tone is similar to that of their blog, Sniff – at least, that’s the aim, though it’s difficult to tell as it’s in Mandarin. When his translator, a former student, chose to sprinkle some Chinese references into his writing, he agreed. “It would be ridiculous to use terminology that wasn’t Chinese,” he says.

Take guava, he says. Taiwan is one of the world’s major producers of the tropical fruit. “I don’t particularly like guava,” admits Pygott, “but it is distinctive in terms of smell.” Indeed, he suggests it’s eerily similar to the smell of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. “If I’d written ‘gooseberry’, ‘grassiness’ and ‘cat pee’ to describe Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and the translator wanted to say ‘guava’, I don’t think I have any problem with that.” 

Beijing-based educator Fongyee Walker MW has been known to sprinkle Chinese references through her tasting notes, including ‘Chinese medicine shop bouquet’, ‘Chinese herbs and spices’ and ‘Lo Ching complexity’. Robinson MW’s translator, Shi, also adopts Chinese descriptors, using terms such as ‘Chinese dates’ and ‘Chinese hawthorn’ in her wine classes, particularly when describing Southern Italian reds. “On one side, it’s meaningful for Chinese people who freely and increasingly use Chinese descriptors that make sense to them,” she says. However, she is cautious not to let her wine students go “too far” from the accepted global vocabulary contained in the Wine and Spirit Education Trust wine program, upon which she bases her courses. The WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine is quite prescriptive, and is part of a global exam process that rates a person’s wine tasting capability according to measurable standards. “It’s just impossible to include all the native fruits from China or, say, Mexico or Chile,” she adds.

Other possibilities

The London-based WSET organisation is becoming a powerful force in China and its one-size-fits-all approach to wine language could prove to be the enduring language of wine there. It is the global qualification many Chinese wine professionals are taking, which could stymie the opportunity for the country to develop its own wine lexicon.

Entrepreneurs such as Ivan Shiu, founder of the Hong Kong Wine Merchants’ Chamber of Commerce, believe it’s important for the Chinese wine trade to embrace WSET and not stray from Western wine expressions, especially when it comes to wine judging. “Honestly, what I expect is more international wine competitions to be held in China like Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and the International Wine Challenge, and it is very important not to create our own judging system,” he says. Demand is such for wine judging classes that he and his company, Wine+, based in Shanghai, are set to launch a wine education program aimed squarely at would-be wine judges.

But there can be problems with relying on Western words. Back in 2000, for example, Oliver was a 40-something Australian wine entrepreneur, nervously trying his luck in China, then a largely unexplored market. His first event was a dinner at The American Club in Beijing. He remembers describing an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. “I was talking about the dark fruits, blackberry, dark plum, that sort of thing,” he says. When he got back to his table he noticed that the person sitting opposite him looked “deeply perplexed”. Through a translator, Oliver discovered that the gentleman was at a loss to know why the Australian Cabernet tasted like his telephone. His BlackBerry. For Oliver, that encounter signalled the end of his insider terminology. “I won’t do the peach-cashew-vanilla-whatever anymore,” he says of the usual Western way of describing wines, the so-called shopping list approach. “It doesn’t work.”

Oliver is therefore concerned that some producers in Australia should be contemplating doing exactly that, albeit adopting a distinctive Chinese-based shopping list of fruits, vegetables and spices. The recently launched Australian Wine Flavours card, promoted by Wine Australia, has its origins in academic research undertaken in China four years ago by the Australian Grape and Wine Authority, the University of South Australia and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. Focus groups were approached in Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou and given Australian wines to taste and describe. The most common terminology applied to the wines by the Chinese tasters was found to be: smooth, fruity, sweet, mellow and lengthy aftertaste. The group was then asked for more specific taste descriptors. For sparkling wines, the most popular proved to be pomelo, kaffir lime, jasmine tea leaves, jackfruit, guava. For white wines, common descriptors were kaffir lime, pomelo, lemongrass, rambutan and guava. And for red wines, it was yangmei, dried Chinese hawthorn, dried Chinese red date, and fresh and dried wolfberry. The information gleaned was used to compile the Australian Wine Flavours Card. Once they have the card in hand, it is presumed that language barriers for Australian winemakers will vanish.

Not everyone sees it that way. “Lexicons are all well and good,” says Andrew Caillard MW, whose Rewards of Patience was translated into Chinese five years ago, “but language is fluid and cannot be forced.” Robert Geddes MW, who regularly commutes between Australia and China to educate and judge, adds: “Giving a list of terms to translate is not enough.” Chinese-born Kandy Xu, who now lives and works out of Melbourne as a wine producer and WSET educator, and has translated three Australian wine books, agrees. She says the terms used in the chart are vague and can easily be more confusing than helpful. She suggests that when in doubt, winemakers and communicators should use humour, which will probably go further than using terms picked from a chart.

The Chinese are in the unusual position of developing a taste for grape-based wine at the same time as developing a language to describe it. Should they embrace Western concepts? Fall into line with the language already used by the global wine trade? Or will they develop their own cultural wine dialect – that just might be the newest wine language on earth? If so, given the projected size of their wine market, their new terms may do something unexpected and come to dominate the Western lexicon. 

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