An evolving women’s wine language
23 May 2016
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Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine Edition, I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams. I’ve worked with food fundi Anna Trapido over the years and I love the waywardness of her thinking. We were having a rare lunch, I promise and she began talking about modern wine tasting lingo. I thought I’d let you in on the discussion and I’d love to have your thoughts on this. So, let’s talk about the language of wine when it comes to women and has it changed at all over the last 50 years?
Anna Trapido: You know, it’s hard to know, that certainly in the written record it hasn’t changed as much as society has changed around it. But the language with which wine is described is, I think, quite alienating for modern women. Quite patronising in a way, that sweet inconsequential light wines as described as ‘feminine’ for instance.
There’s lots of references to voluptuousness and platters, for instance. Every second wine is described as rubenesque and there’s nothing wrong with those terms. There are worse ways of describing wine. But it feels to me that since women are increasingly the people who buy wine, they buy more wine than man in fact.
JCW: Do they really?
AT: Yes, but on a domestic level that men are wine collectors, but women buy the Thursday night bottle of wine to have with spaghetti sauce. In terms of their economic clout in the wine industry, it’s quite considerable and yet the terms just feel a bit icky, I think they’re a bit alienating for women.
Terms for wines and how they are received
JCW: Would women use terms like ‘voluptuous – this is a voluptuous wine’?
AT: I don’t think so. I don’t think they would describe wines as smelling like cigars rolled on Cuban virgins’ legs and those kinds of slightly daft, soft porn images –
JCW: That excite them so much.
AT: That male wine writers seem like such a lot. I notice that on the rare occasions when I’ve sort of tried to join such conversations, all my imagery for describing, either the way the wine smells or tastes or looks or even feels in my mouth, that men sort of snigger.
If I say I think it looks like Chanel No. 5 in terms of its colour, that’s somehow thought to be wrong. The kinds of images that girls might have in their frame of reference. Somehow you’re supposed to do these more manly terms. That it’s supposed to smell like sweaty saddles or tobacco boxes.
I know that I’m describing that thing that people call the tobacco box smell. When I say it smells like a weekend away in a dusty holiday cottage, I know that I mean the same thing. But in my head I have a sort of library of experiences, smell, taste, feel, experiences, that are just different.
JCW: But any woman would understand what you meant when it’s as clear or it’s the colour of Chanel No. 5, women would understand that.
AT: And yet somehow you’re made to feel like it’s wrong, if you try and describe things in those terms. I think that in lots of ways women A, genetically they’ve proved that women are actually better/different, that’s open for debate. But the way that they smell and taste, is just slightly different, genetically. In terms of their taste receptors in their mouths, but also their experiences are different.
Women have a better scent of familiar smells
On the whole, if this is a thing that you can describe in terms of smells of fruit and vegetables and those kinds of experiences, women spend more time in supermarkets than men do, they smell more melons. So I think their library of smell and taste experiences and visual experiences with relation to wine, ought to be at least as valid, and somehow they aren’t.
JCW: How would you describe say a sweaty Shiraz that might have been rolled on the inside of a virgin’s legs or something or the other, you know. One of those very robust Shiraz’s for instance, if we want to give a girl thing; I would say it’s kind of like a winter velvet, you know those lovely dark reds that you get in winter.
AT: Well, exactly and maybe now I’m going to contradict myself completely. Because I remember having a very unsuitable French boyfriend once who described a red wine that sounded great in French. So that goes down like the little Jesus in velvet knickerbockers. I thought, I know exactly, that people who have a sense of, the texture, the fabric and I mean real velvet rather than that horrible nylon velvet, but exactly. I think the little Jesus in velvet knickerbockers is not bad, but I think I would talk in terms of its generosity and –
JCW: Would you say this is like a Diana Vreeland red, if you’re a girl and if you follow fashion, you know that –
AT: Exactly, that would be a perfect example or that kind of, sort of deep, dense purple that only orchids have, for instance. I don’t think that those are less valid. That if you want to describe a wine in terms of Lady Gaga’s meat dress, for instance, why not. It’s not somehow, it’s not wrong, it’s no less valid than a virgin’s inner thigh.
JCW: I guess it’s up to girls to say well, actually, this is what we think of it. I mean I think it’s quite justified to say something is a voluptuous red because we all know what voluptuous means.
AT: I think women, if men call women voluptuous, women think that they’re being called fat.
JCW: Yes, well they are actually.
AT: But men think that’s a nice thing, whereas women would think that was a negative quality in a wine and a person.
JCW: Your bottom’s too big to get into your jeans and you’re wearing a bra that’s too low cut and you’re bulging out.
AT: But men wouldn’t think that was a bad thing.
JCW: No, maybe we’re telling them –
AT: That they ought to think it’s a bad thing.
Naming of Rosè’s as an example
JCW: Can I just ask a little bit then about pink wines, because pink is always associated with little girls. Pink just is, although it is by far the best colour, if you’re a woman, to be photographed against. But what about the rise on rise of Rosè’s and some of which you would not touch because they look so vulgar.
AT: Well, somebody said to me the other day, again, it was a woman and maybe it’s a good example. She said, do you know, it tastes like Hello Kitty. What she meant and I completely got it was, you know that sort of synthetic faux strawberry that’s actually quite nice, it’s almost too strawberry. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely a bit over-blown and a bit juvenile. I think it would be perfectly valid to say that certain Rosè’s taste like Hello Kitty.
JCW: And certain Rosè’s taste too pretty, you know, there can be that. It’s like getting into a lift and someone has a very sweet, powdery perfume –
AT: That dreadful sort of Body Shop strawberry perfume that again, is more strawberry than real strawberries, that real strawberries are quite subtle things.
JCW: All right, so let’s move along, I think we’ve made ourselves quite clear and from now on we’ll have to use –
AT: It tastes like Hello Kitty.
Giving wines a South African naming feel
JCW: It tastes like Hello Kitty! Listen, let’s talk about the other side of things. When we had our initial conversation, you were saying that most of the words we use, when describing wine, apart from the female side; have really brought to us, from abroad. We’re not using South African terms, for instance, this has got a West Coast. Now, I think anyone who has been to the West Coast would understand it.
AT: Exactly, that sort of salty, I tasted Capa Roca, Mourvèdre the other day, that comes from the West Coast, it’s called Soutslaai. So it’s almost a succulent, but it grows on the beaches and it’s delicious.
JCW: It’s slightly sour.
AT: Exactly, it’s slightly sour but also, you can tell that there was salt in the air. Because it’s almost got like little crystals of salt imbedded in its taste. Because the plant just breathed that in. I think that that smells like the West Coast. That slightly lemony, slightly salty, crunch thing that a lot of dry whites have. That I would think you could say smells like the West Coast.
JCW: If you wanted to describe something that smells like an un-tarred road in the Karoo, would we know what we were smelling?
AT: Yes, that kind of radiating heat, warmth, generosity. I would come across that same thing that you get from, you know the way South African olive oils. You just open the bottle and this kind of tomato leaf flavour just sort of jumps out at you and says ‘Hello, I’m here.’
The way that the warm climate, new world wines just are so friendly. So, almost overly friendly, and you think that if this wine was a person, it would have invited me to supper and it doesn’t even know me yet. The way that South Africans do and a lot of the wines do that as well, they kind of leap out at you. It’s very generous, slightly overwhelming way sometimes.
Describing a wine from the Elgin valley
JCW: Let’s go to Elgin and try and describe something, because they’re cool, more understated. I’m thinking of somebody who is seriously cool. I want to think of someone who is seriously cool and it’s certainly not Madonna. The wines of Elgin which I always see as refined. I don’t think they go over the top.
I love the Paul Cluver Pinot Noir, I don’t know how to describe it, but I know it’s cool. I think it’s probably like a petticoat dress in a certain kind of red, do you know, the slips that you put on. They’ve got to be made out of silk and they don’t cling, they just, they’re slightly loose. But they are just so sexy and I kind of get that feeling with the Paul Cluver Pinot Noir.
AT: I’m beginning to think maybe we’re taking this too far. That you know, I agree that for me, you know, again, I suppose this is an example. You know that there is that Chanel perfume called Chanel Eau Verte, that I’ve only occasionally had when kind of very glamorous people have bought it for me at airports. That I wouldn’t ever be cool enough to remember to buy it for myself.
It has that kind of understated layered, after a while, sitting next to someone you think, that’s nice. Rather than just like kind of being bombarded in the elevator by too much Hello Kitty. It’s got a nice green understated, quiet thing that ja, on all levels.
JCW: So, really, at the end of this conversation, we haven’t really progressed very far with our South African terminology, but we want to.
Wine smells like whatever you think it smells like
AT: Look, I think the thing about the South African-ness is that quite often the wine terminology. I think that we tend to fall into this habit, it’s based on a frame of reference that works very well for people from other places. For instance, I hear South Africans often describing wine in terms of pear drops. I mean I know what a pear drop is, but then I grew up in England. I’ve never seen a pear drop in a South African sweet shop.
But people talk about sherbet lemons and again, I don’t think that’s a taste reference that South Africans really have. That the one that John Platter said to me the other day is that people often describe red wines in terms of smelling like violets and apparently violets don’t smell at all.
Now, we all know exactly, I know what people mean, or certainly I think that what they mean is those crystallised violets that you get on pretty cupcakes, sort of Nigella Lawson cupcakes. But actually violets don’t smell, so it’s a nonsense reference for all of us, including me.
All I’m really saying, I suppose, is that wine is a moving target. So wine smells like whatever you think it smells like. There isn’t a right and a wrong answer with any of those. That if you grew up in Soweto and your frame of reference is the smokiness around the coal stove, then that is a perfectly valid thing to be smelling.
If you grew up on the West Coast and what you’re getting is that rooibos smell or fynbos thing, those are all completely valid. That what we don’t want to do, either by gender or by region or class or whatever, is feel we can’t describe things in terms that really mean something to us.
JCW: That are indigenous to us, in one way or another.
AT: Whether that be personally indigenous or culturally indigenous. That if your mother made a certain kind of soup and you smell that. Or if for instance, there was a Pinot Noir the other day that I tasted at De Wetshof that it just felt sort of earthy to me. The only thing that I could think that it smelt and tasted like, for me, was roasted chestnuts.
I said that and everybody looked completely perplexed by that, because that wasn’t an experience that other people had had. So, you know, it’s all, how long is a piece of string. You can describe wine in any way you like, as long as you’re enjoying it.
JCW: Anna Trapido, thank you very much indeed. Thanks for listening to this episode of Old Mutual Live Wine Edition. If you’d like to get in touch with comments, questions or suggestions, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.