Guest feature: Sarah Heller MW on the Language of Wine

Sarah Heller, Asia’s youngest Master of Wine, is unusually well qualified to discuss wine communication in its broadest sense. An exhibited visual artist, TV host and wine columnist, she speaks English, Chinese, German, Italian and French with basic Korean and Spanish, and is one of the three key lecturers on the faculty of the Vinitaly International Academy.

Reading time: 4m 20s

Wine degustation (Photo: Eléonore H/AdobeStock)
Wine degustation (Photo: Eléonore H/AdobeStock)

 

  • Communicating about wine effectively with professionals and different consumer groups requires us to consciously adopt different registers.
  • Wine education has given us greater comprehensibility but its language is colourless and not sales-friendly to consumers.
  • Communication among professionals should emphasise precision without becoming illegible to non-industry audiences.
  • Communication with most consumer groups should emphasise relatability and emotional pull without sacrificing accuracy.
  • Communicators should remember that people with different regional and cultural backgrounds may have different vocabularies, and understandings of particular terms.

 

As something we experience mainly through our primal senses – smell, taste and touch – wine is tricky to communicate about effectively. Unfortunately, to sell wine we must speak as intelligibly as possible about its quality and qualities both to other professionals and consumers.  Thus, many of us resort to a flattening combination of numeric score and basic descriptors (‘citrus’ or ‘sweet spices’); language that’s quality-denoting but vague (‘poised’ or ‘tense’); or else aromatic laundry lists that are too specific to be meaningful.  

The primary aim of formal wine education has been universal comprehensibility and this is certainly a laudable goal.  Some even believe we should use more scientific terms: ‘pyrazines’ not ‘capsicum’; ‘terpenes’ not ‘floral.’  However, as the wine world grows, attracting global markets and previously unengaged demographics, idiosyncratic terminology that resonates with particular audiences – usually anything but technical – has flourished. 

In fact, the sense that wine demands its own lexicon has likely hindered growth. In my own professional life – which spans four continents and both the rigorously objective worlds of wine judging and education and the subjective, fanciful worlds of luxury lifestyle publishing, digital media and visual art – I’ve grown increasingly aware of the need to ‘code-switch.’ 
 

Speaking with Professionals

The global rise of the WSET and its standardized approach to tasting has undoubtedly bolstered the wine industry, especially in markets like China.  However, it’s telling that outside of the educational context even professionals rarely use WSET-approved expressions like ‘medium plus acidity’ that better support efficient exam marking than effective communication.  Master of Wine students are instead encouraged to use adjectives, both to add ‘colour’ and, ostensibly, precision: acidity is ‘fresh,’ ‘crisp,’ or ‘searing.’ However, their exact hierarchy is controversial.

Leaning too heavily on numbers and chemistry also has its pitfalls.

In the MW exam, students give numeric values for residual sugar and alcohol by volume but, though exam-friendly, numbers don’t necessarily convey how sweet or alcoholic a wine actually feels to the person drinking it, thanks to confounding factors such as acidity.  Naming aromatic compounds is more problematic still, as some smell drastically different depending on their concentration and accompanying compounds (think of thiols, which span passionfruit to cat urine).  In developing the trade-focused Vinitaly International Academy, my colleagues and I decided we should teach the compounds that are likely behind varietal aromas, but ultimately prioritise commonly understood descriptors like herbs, fruit and flowers. 

Trouble arises when scents lack commonly understood points of reference. These notably include ‘reductive’ notes (a scientifically imprecise term for volatile sulphur compounds) or ‘mineral’ aromas like ‘flint,’ ‘chalk’ or ‘stone.’  The former can be described as ‘struck match,’ ‘onion’ or ‘cabbage’ (unappealing, but preferable to ‘drain’).  As for the latter, the rationalization that the surface hydrocarbons of rocks volatilise when they’re moistened or struck, while correct, seems a little forced; saying ‘flinty’ can still leave the false impression that these aromas come from flint in the soil.  When speaking to other professionals, I’ll use ‘hydrocarbon,’ or, when pushed, ‘petrichor,’ (the smell of rain hitting dry soil), which are at least accurate if not alluring.

A further complication, as Harold McGee’s book Nose Dive explains, is that our aromatic referents are all culturally – if not personally – specific.  There are ‘herbal’ and ‘floral’ notes that also appear in insects and are thus considered ‘entomological’ in some cultures.  In navigating cross-cultural contexts, I have that found colour-based aroma categories – red, purple, black, green, yellow or golden fruit – are surprisingly more comprehensible than too-broad botanical categories like ‘citrus.’ 

Finally, what about those vague style terms – ‘austere’ for subdued aromatics and unyielding structure or ‘elegant’ for light flavours and body – which carry specific meanings in context but are easy to mis- (or re-) interpret?  These are probably best in settings where everyone is presumed has similar training and experience, like Bordeaux en Primeur tastings.
 

Speaking with Consumers

For some consumers the very exclusivity of wine-speak is part of the appeal; terms like ‘brett,’ ‘malo,’ ‘concentrated’ or ‘layered’ signal their insider status.  However, for those less invested in this aspect of wine culture, relatability is key.  London-based writer Sophia Longhi, founder of Skin + Pulp, recalls being called out for dropping ‘restrained’ into an informal wine tasting; ‘to knowingly bamboozle people with trade-specific words when they are new to wine only emits an air of superiority,’ she says. 

Bronx-born erstwhile rapper, auctioneer and Cru Luv Wine Founder Jermaine Stone is known for using language to meld wine and hip hop cultures.  He’ll substitute ‘funky’ for the unrelatable ‘barnyardy’ or use terms like ‘loud’ (indicating a pronounced aroma, often marijuana) for particularly aromatic wines.  Stone’s music pairings, his colleague Rebecca Lawrence adds, both help elucidate concepts like ‘complexity’ and also ‘create a mood,’ shaping his audience’s wine perceptions in ways words alone do not.  In my own work, I use colour, texture and shape to describe wines through my visual art for similar reasons. 

Meanwhile, Asian markets less familiar with foods like cassis, gooseberry or butter require further adjustments.  Beijing-based sommelier, fine wine merchant and restaurateur Isabella Ko emphasises local herbs like ‘angelica.’  MW candidate and 400,000-follower live-streamer Xing Wei eschews spices, which most Chinese associate with meat stews.  His wine novice audience prefers generic descriptors like ‘pure,’ ‘mellow’ or ‘classic’ that are used for Baijiu spirits,  However, Baijiu terminology is an imperfect fit for wine.  Ko notes that a good ‘finish’ in Baijiu suggests alcohol that can be felt after swallowing, almost the opposite of its meaning for wine. 

Other wine concepts are similarly lost in translation in China.  For example, Ningxia winemaker Ian Dai says a cultural distaste for acidic food and drink makes distinguishing acidity levels or types challenging for many Chinese speakers.  MW student Tina Xie of Hong Kong’s The Fine Wine Experience says the Chinese language lacks distinct terms for ‘sour’ and ‘acidic.’  She says overall balance – like how syrup is added to iced tea – is more readily understood. 

Ultimately, in speaking to the consumer, familiarity and even emotional resonance take priority, though ideally not at the expense of accuracy.  Terms like ‘sweet tannins’ or ‘bitter tannins’ that confusingly apply taste terms to a textural element are probably unhelpful.  However, if a reference to ‘Juicy Couture tannins’ inspires someone to buy a wine they enjoy, so much the better.
 

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