Devil's Advocate: Can we Ever Develop a Universal Language of Wine?

After decades of writing about wine and editing and judging other people's words on the subject, Robert Joseph wonders whether there will ever be a vocabulary that works for everyone.

Reading time: 4m

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

“Our Chardonnays all have a barberry taste.”

At first hearing, I had the surreal thought that the Moldovan winemaker had said ‘Burberry’, and briefly struggled to imagine a link between the British clothing brand and the white wine in my glass. Then he looked up dracila — the local term — and the Latin name Berberis vulgaris on Google Translate to confirm that he’d used the correct word and helpfully showed me a picture of the yellow-flowered, red-berry fruit to which he’d referred.

I was none the wiser.

The brilliant line that writing about music is like ‘dancing about architecture’ is usually misattributed to Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello but was probably coined by the less illustrious Martin Mull. Whoever came up with those words, however, might equally well have applied them to art or wine writing.

Analytical, poetic or allusive?

Whatever approach anybody chooses when trying to describe a wine — drily analytical, poetic, allusive — someone else is going to look blank or declare they’ve got it wrong. Today we laugh at the centuries-old notion of a Beaune slipping down the gullet ‘like the little Lord Jesus in velvet pantaloons’ but, for different reasons, it is no longer nearly as acceptable to say, as many French producers have done routinely, that wines are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

The days when viewers of the popular British TV program Food & Drink used to enjoy Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden describing wines as being like ‘a barrowload of kumquats’ or ‘sweaty gym shoes on hot tarmac’ seem to be long gone too.

Fashionable minerals

Until quite recently a great many people in the business of talking about wine suddenly seemed to have become obsessed with ‘minerality’ — an apparently near-essential quality that set wines like Chablis, Riesling, Picpoul de Pinet and Assyrtiko apart from undesirably ‘fruity’, ‘oaky’ fare.

Sarah Heller, who, when she gained the qualification was the youngest Master of Wine, took particular exception to the inexactitude of this kind of language in a guest article for Meininger’s. “Saying ‘flinty’ can… leave the false impression that these aromas come from flint in the soil.”


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

Even more quickly than it arrived, mineral now seems to be disappearing from professionals’ vocabulary — only to be replaced by the increasingly fashionable ‘saline’ and ‘salinity’ which, curiously, often seem to apply to inland wines like Chablis that were previously thought to be blessed with minerality.

My friend, the Australia-based MW, Phil Reedman, suggests that 'halitic' is already beginning to supplant saline among hip tasters. I think he's joking, but you can never be sure.

These swings in semantic fashion have, of course, had absolutely no impact on the vast majority of ‘normal’ wine drinkers: human beings who simply enjoy consuming wine and quite possibly beer and spirits, without ever feeling the need to find appropriate words with which to describe them.

Unknown fruit

People, who rarely, if ever, read about wine are similarly unaffected by the recent realisation by some professionals that the fruit and vegetable descriptors traditionally used by Europeans and Anglo Saxons are often meaningless to people in ‘developing’ wine nations in Asia and Africa who, for example, may never have encountered a redcurrant. There should, it is now being argued, be a more inclusive vinous vocabulary.

Moves in this direction will be appreciated by people who do read about wine in mature markets, including Americans with no experience of the gooseberries that Britons routinely associate with Sauvignon Blanc, and by Englishmen and women who’ve never tasted the boysenberries that often seem to feature in US critics’ prose.

English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic will probably be happy to live without the French descriptor, ‘tout en dentelle’ which gets routinely translated as ‘lacy’.

Francophone wine tasters are presumably taught how to differentiate between ‘lacy’, ‘velvety’, ‘satiny’ and ‘silky’ wines — all terms I’ve seen used — just as Australians have learned to identify the DMS , thiols and diacetyl that pepper some of their descriptions. WSET students across the world do learn a common language, but it's not one that would often help a sommelier or a website copywriter sell many bottles.

Not like Bordeaux

It was Brian Miller, a senior Australian wine marketer, who recently complained about wine producers and writers in his country using terms like ‘Bordeaux blend’ and ‘Burgundian’. “It's time,” he noted in an email to a few Australia-focused industry friends, “to bin the Bordeaux balderdash.” Referencing other regions, he claimed was “false, empty, meaningless, and self-defeating”.

“How would anyone know?” he rhetorically wondered, what a fine example of Bordeaux might taste like given the prices those wines now command.

Miller has a point. For many people, ‘Bordeaux-like’ is as meaningless as thiols or barberries, but for some, it might be a useful way of differentiating a Margaret River Cabernet Merlot blend from the bigger, more intense style associated with Napa, for example. Just as Sarah Heller’s ‘accurate’ reference to ‘hydrocarbon’ or, "when pushed, ‘petrichor,’ (the smell of rain hitting dry soil)” may have resonance with the ‘fellow professionals’ for whom she reserves these terms.

After decades of thinking about the challenge of wine descriptors, and looking at wine reviews penned by consumers who tend to favour simple, broad, adjectives like ‘fruity’, ‘mellow’, ‘smooth’, ’fresh’, ‘harsh’ and ‘sour’, I’ve concluded that this is a question to which there is no correct answer.

If, as Heller says — quoting MW student Tina Xie of Hong Kong’s The Fine Wine Experience — the Chinese language lacks distinct terms for ‘sour’ and ‘acidic’, and as I’ve found, many Western wine drinkers struggle to identify any specific fruit aromas in a wine when challenged, we are never going to create a satisfactory universal wine vocabulary. We’re all going to go on dancing about architecture in our own ways, drawing comparisons that make sense to ourselves that we hope will work for others — ideally tailoring our language to the audience to whom we are speaking.

And if you were wondering what barberries taste like? Apparently they’re tangily exotic, and very like Moldovan Chardonnay.

Academic Papers

A consumer survey done by Hochschule Geisenheim University shows that wine-interested consumers in Germany expect transparency around ingredients. Prof. Dr Simone Loose presents the findings. 

Reading time: 7m 15s



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