A lot about our mouths gives flavor to how we perceive and interact with our world. Take our amazing tongue — a sense organ extraordinaire, the muscle that enhances a kiss, and a kind of Swiss Army tool we use to wet things, clean things, and test things prior to ingesting them. The tongue is also required to form words, hence language. And language is a huge key in how we perceive our world.
What does this have to do with wine? Well, a lot more than you may imagine. In his fascinating article Tip of the Tongue, W. Blake Gray says that “The words you use to describe a taste may actually change how you taste it.” He describes not only how language influences our perception of the world, but how the words we use to describe wine can be unexpectedly and hugely different from culture to culture.
To make the point crystal clear, let’s start with an example that has nothing to do with wine. European languages have gender — masculine, feminine and neuter — associated with nouns. Gray sites an example given by Dr. Robin Lakoff of the Berkeley linguistics department, where he said that French people think of bridges as strong and powerful, whereas Germans think of them as beautiful and delicate. It will come as little surprise to learn that bridge in French is masculine while bridge in German is feminine.
Now let’s look at wine. Try this thought experiment: think about wine in feminine terms. What descriptive words and images come to mind? Now think about wine in masculine terms. Big difference, I would wager. In my mind, for example, a sparkling wine or champagne is more feminine, while a robust Cabernet more masculine. Americans don’t have gender associations with wines per se. Rather, they reveal these influences in words they use to describe flavors and textures.
Gray’s interesting analysis goes beyond male/female. He notes many cultural differences that come to light in the actual words used to describe wine.
For example, the words acid, sour and sweet have positive or negative connotations depending upon whether you are talking to an Italian or a Chinese. So whatever words we use to talk about wines, whether it be fruit flavors (e.g., citrusy, raspberry and apple), size descriptors (e.g., bold, big and lean) or non-food comparisons (e.g., leather, tar and metal), it’s important to keep in mind that these descriptors are likely to have very different connotations for the different people we meet.
What’s the takeaway here? For starters, it could be very fun and insightful to try wine in “foreign” languages. For example, if you’re doing a tasting with a group of friends, have everybody describe the first two wines in feminine terms, the next two wines in masculine terms, and the final two wines in animal terms (e.g., cat-like, dog-like and bear-like).
Another takeaway is to think about the times you’ve heard a friend describe a wine in terms you thought unpalatable. Suppose you tasted the wine anyway, and found you liked it. That’s the goal: listen to what others say about wine, especially those from other cultures, but trust your taste buds first and foremost.
The final takeaway comes from the telephone game from our childhood: Recognize that your brilliant descriptions of wine, meant to convey brilliant images, may not always do the trick.
I would love to hear your thoughts on Gray’s wonderful article.