Wine words and responsibility: do try this at home

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jul 2, 2016

Readers of this blog, and those who have heard me speak at conferences, will know that my relationship with the language wine people use is complicated. There are often reasons for the words we use, but those reasons are not always self-evident. Nor do we do a very good job of making this known, and explaining what those words are intended to convey. In many ways, and many times, wine language is coterminous with, but not equal to, everyday usage of the same words. One could, and perhaps, should, think of them as a sort of homophone, those words that sound the same, but mean different things. (Yes, for the language pedants, there are subcategories of homophones that might be better examples, but I don’t want to belabour the point too much.) I won’t even get into the fact that all of this is assuming wine writers agree on what the terms mean. We don’t.

Having said that, communication is a two-way street. It doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me to expect people talking about wine language to do a bit of work to find out how it is being used. I do not expect people to stand in a wine shop and google terms from the back of the label. But if you are going to be reading wine reviews, for example, it might be best not to presume you know what the words mean. It’s easy enough to check, so why don’t people?

To once more generalise wildly, it seems when people decide to mock wine language, they often pick especially egregious examples. I’m going to do the same, in reverse. This, in fact, is what prompted this rant in the first place.

I was recently reading Neurogastronomy: how the brain creates flavour and why it matters, by Gordon M. Shepherd, a Professor of neurobiology. Bits of it are fairly interesting. But then I made the mistake of skipping ahead, to skim Chapter Twenty-Four (they are short chapters, it’s not a hugely long book.) This is the chapter on ‘Smell, Flavor, and Language.’ Things get worrisome in this chapter. ‘Some claim that humans can discriminate among 10,000 odors. However many it is, there must be a corresponding number of words to describe them’ (p. 210). I’m not sure why this should be. To take a parallel case from the visual world, not all Pantone colours have distinct names. In fact, I would suppose very few, if any do, and yet we can see them as different. This, of course, is before we even begin considering different languages.

But I digress, although this is a taste of things to come. Shepherd devotes on paragraph to Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel, without much to say about it, other than it exists (p211). But then we turn the page, and get to his take on Robert Parker. Let me quote one paragraph in particular:

His [Parker’s] summary of the qualities of one of the great wines, a 1994 Petrus Bordeaux, starts with an overall comment on it being “a powerful, tannic, backward looking wine.” Powerful presumably means strong-tasting, tannic refers to the astringency due to the binding of proteins (chapter 14), and backward looking presumably means a long aftertaste. The color he describes as “deep, dark ruby / purple,” the darkness increasing with age and complexity. He then goes on to comment that “with coaxing” (slow careful swishing of the wine in the mouth?), the “closed nose [presumably meaning retronasal smell with the wine held in the mouth] offers up scents of coffee, herb-tinged jammy black cherries, and toasty new oak.” On his scale of 100 points being best, he rates it a 91-93-plus (p. 212).

Keeping in mind wine-writers are not universal in their use of words I want to pick up on three things I think we’d all agree were wrong here, and, more importantly, would have been easy enough to check.

Let’s start with ‘Powerful presumably means strong-tasting’ (and to be fair to Shepherd, at least he acknowledges he doesn’t know what the words means). This one is a bit hard, since it isn’t clear what Shepherd himself means by ‘strong-tasting’ in the context of wine. But ‘powerful,’ I would say, is generally recognised to mean full-bodied and high in alcohol, but not overly so. We’ll let this one go, since Shepherd himself isn’t very clear. But the other two examples are.

Take ‘backward looking presumably means a long aftertaste.’ The only answer for this is, no, it doesn’t. Granted, it is not clear what the term means, and some reading around will not reveal universal agreement. But it isn’t a long aftertaste. Basically, ‘backward looking’ means the wine isn’t ready to drink, usually because it is too young.  Granted, it is not a common phrase, but one that a bit of asking or reading would have given you the general meaning for.

The last example is even starker: ‘“with coaxing” (slow careful swishing of the wine in the mouth?), the “closed nose [presumably meaning retronasal smell with the wine held in the mouth].’  Again, no. Here at least the first guess is sort of close. In this context, it is clear that coaxing is swirling the wine in the glass. So, correct basic action, wrong location. Shepherd’s guess on ‘closed nose’ is simply wrong. And this is a bit odd, since this is a quite straightforward phrase. ‘Nose’ is the wine word for the aroma. Surely someone writing on flavour would bother to learn the basics? ‘Closed’ is also a universal term, and refers to the fact that the nose is not very expressive. If you smell it, you won’t pick up on the full potential of the wine. Swirling in the glass helps it open up.

My point is not that Shepherd, or anyone else, should automatically know these terms. Rather, it is that if you are going to try to use any technical vocabulary, you should make an effort to learn at least a bit of it. We do have reasons for the words we use, and think they mean something. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, often if you ask us, we’ll tell you how we are using them. Yes, I picked what to me is a particularly egregious example. I’d have expected an academic to be a bit more careful in making assumptions when drawing on another field of expertise. My point remains: Neurogastronomy is a particularly extreme case, and wine writers need to do a better job of communicating how we want words to be understood. Still, with this in mind, please try to be a responsible wine reader, and try to meet us if not halfway, then a tiny part of the way. Both sides will learn something.



Shepherd, Gordon M. 2012. Neurogastronomy: how the brain creates flavour and why it matters. New York: Columbia University Press.

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