It’s time we changed how we talk about wine

Can a glass of tipple really be described as masculine or feminine? It’s lazy and outdated, argues wine expert Rosamund Hall

Sunday 02 June 2024 13:21 BST
Lighter wines, including rosé, are often desribed as feminine
Lighter wines, including rosé, are often desribed as feminine (Getty/iStock)

In 2013, an Oregon winemaker wrote in a newspaper article that pinot noir is “the girl next door that every winemaker is pursuing, it makes you drop to your knees”.

Today, wine glasses and T-shirts with the phrase “pink wine makes me slutty”, taken from an early episode of the US sitcom New Girl, are readily available to buy on websites across the world. It’s even become a trending hashtag and has crept into wine description vernacular across the pond, with increasing references here.

I am the first to acknowledge that wine language is highly esoteric and varied, but “slutty”, alongside “sexy”, ”masculine” and ”feminine”, are just wrong when it comes to describing wine.

For a start it’s lazy. Why are we still using these hackneyed tropes?

Wine has been written about for millennia – Pliny the Elder was critiquing and rating it as far back as the first century and his observations are still influential today. Like many aspects of our society, wine was traditionally the preserve of white men of a certain class and, as such, the language that has evolved around it over many years has been heavily influenced by these self-appointed guardians of the wine world.

In historic wine writing, there was a more classist leaning towards descriptors – was the wine ”aristocratic” or “rustic”? –and there was less conversation around taste. But that changed in 1975 when Decanter magazine was launched – the first broad-appeal wine publication. Its emergence heralded a new era of wine writing and was in many ways a great step forward in broadening its appeal. However, the majority of the articles were still written by men, predominantly for men.

The writers during the Seventies and Eighties assumed great power as the dictators of taste, and the language they used was highly influential. Images of women regularly appeared in the magazine as a backdrop to the wine; one front cover in July 1989 featured the long legs of a naked woman holding a glass of pink champagne on her knee – a highly suggestive image of a magazine issue discussing ”perfect in pink: rose champagnes assessed”.

You would imagine that terminology would’ve moved on since then but it hasn’t. It’s not just on social media; winemakers themselves continue to use this language. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been at a tasting and a winemaker has described their wine as either ”masculine”, usually to indicate it’s powerful and has a greater structure, while the lighter, more ”fun” and ultimately less serious wines are invariably described as “feminine”.

Unfortunately, my French extends little beyond the GCSE “Tricolore” textbooks, so debating the semantics of wine is a little out of my realm – but it doesn’t stop me from thinking that this lazy anthropomorphism reinforces utterly outdated gender stereotypes.

Whole wine regions are often characterised as “masculine” and “feminine”, as is the case of Barolo and Barbaresco. These two regions are very close to one another in Piedmont, northwest Italy, and both produce outstanding wines from the grape nebbiolo. Unfortunately for barbaresco, barolo is regarded as the ”king of wine” to barbaresco’s ”queen of wine”. Barolo is often described as being heavier, more muscular and tannic, whereas barbaresco is more elegant and ready to drink earlier. Both are serious wines, but one sounds a little more serious, don’t you think?

And what about a wine being described as “sexy”? For a start, it doesn’t actually mean anything in relation to wine. And my idea about what is deemed sexy is most likely different to your definition of sexy, and I definitely don’t like being told what is sexy. These stereotypes also perpetuate the idea of what women like to drink. Do we not realise that the wine world, like the rest of the world, is not binary?

So how should we talk about wine? For me, one of the most beguiling aspects of wine is the story of the product. The place it comes from, the people that made it, the landscape that shapes it and how all of this combines to bring me my personal experience, unique to me. Let’s leave the sexist and outdated descriptors in the past.

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