Mutating and Contested Languages of Wine: Heard on the Grapevine

  • David InglisEmail author
Living reference work entry


Language is thoroughly bound up with wine in myriad ways, and the drinking of wine is very often accompanied with talk about it. This chapter considers the nature of wine tasting languages; the differences and rivalry between wine talk (of critics and suchlike persons) and wine language (of scientists and their allies in the wine world); how wine language is bound up with the creation of social hierarchies and senses of commonality among wine drinkers; contemporary trends towards hyper-specificity in wine vocabularies; and the changing nature of the argots in and through which wine is sold and labelled. In so doing, the chapter stresses the constantly changing, conflict-laden, and often contradictory and paradoxical nature of talk and language related to wine and wine drinking.


Wine Tasting Alcohol Labels Appreciation Connoisseurship Sociology 


All human lifeworlds are made possible by language and discourse. The world of wine is a particularly acute case. This is a domain hugely based upon linguistic forms, comprised of sets of discourses and of classificatory schemes. There are multiple ways in which wine cannot “work” without language. The linguistic bases of appreciating and drinking wine can be seen even in the most personal acts of tasting by an individual, as we will see. These bases are made more obvious and are further accentuated, when the drinking is done in some sort of public forum, when wine is talked about between two or more interlocutors, either in face-to-face conversations or in more indirect ways through written texts. Language is thoroughly bound up with wine in myriad ways, and the drinking of wine is very often accompanied with talk about it.

These issues will be explored in this chapter from the viewpoint of cultural sociology, which stresses the conflict-laden and often contradictory and paradoxical nature of human life. First, the nature of wine tasting languages is considered. Then the differences, and rivalry, between wine talk (of critics and suchlike persons) and wine language (of scientists and their allies in the wine world) are examined. It is then shown how wine language is bound up with the creation both of social hierarchies and of senses of commonality among wine drinkers. Contemporary trends towards hyper-specificity in wine vocabularies and conceptualizations are reflected upon. In the final part, the mutating nature of the argots in and through which wine is sold and labelled is depicted.

The Languages of Tasting Wine

Wine may seem like an entity which in some ways “speaks for itself.” When someone samples a specific wine, its qualities are taken in simultaneously by that person’s senses of taste, smell, and sight. But how that person makes sense of the information yielded to them by their senses is strongly linguistically shaped. Even when someone sits alone in a room sipping from a glass, the sense they make of what they are experiencing is made possible by linguistic and cultural categories: this is “red,” this is quite “bitter,” it reminds me of “cherries,” it is “Italian,” and suchlike. The wine will be understood in the light of and through commonly available words in that person’s language, for example, “dry,” “sharp,” “sweet,” “mild,” and so on, in the vocabulary of a contemporary English speaker. Someone speaking Cantonese, however, will have in some ways a very different set of linguistic classifications through which they make sense of the sight, taste, and smell of the same wine.

Such differences also apply at the level of the connotations invoked by the words used to describe the basic properties of a wine. English and Cantonese speakers can generally agree that a wine is “red” or “white,” but what the color red implies in each linguistic context may differ markedly. Hence the Chinese liking of red wines because the color red connotes good luck and prosperity, while being more averse to white wines, because the color white does not carry such positive connotations (Tang et al. 2015). The drinking of wine, the appreciation of it, and the making sense of what one is drinking are therefore strongly mediated by language, and more broadly by the cultural contexts generated through, and expressed in, language. This is so in ways that most people, most of the time, do not consciously reflect upon.

Academic analysts and wine industry professionals, however, think about such matters all the time. One general way to conceive of such matters is summarized by Vannini et al. (2010). When tasting wine and talking about it, there are three main modes of attending in and through the act of tasting both to the wine and to one’s own body and its senses which are doing the tasting. The first mode involves the use of “quali-signs,” denoting generic, abstract properties like sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, and sourness. These tend to be bundled into master descriptions like “this wine is sweet.” The second mode involves the use of indexical signs. In this case, the tasted wine is felt to affect the taster in some way, and she/he imputes causal properties to the wine (“it’s giving me a lot of apricot,” “I feel a lot of gooseberry in the nose”). The taster says what the wine does to them at the same time as they say what the wine is like. The third mode involves the deployment of similes and metaphors to capture the various perceived sensuous qualities of the wine. In certain conventional settings, of which a formal wine tasting is the epitome, such metaphorizing is usually regarded by co-participants as an indication of wine-knowledge prowess rather than as a failure to capture the wine’s putative essence(s). Nonetheless, as we will see below, metaphorical wine language is strongly condemned by some wine professionals, especially those of a more self-consciously “scientific” orientation.

In a classic and much-cited paper, the American linguist Adrienne Lehrer (1975) sought to identify how language operates when it is used to describe wines, by both wine professionals and nonprofessionals. The former, of course, have a much more extended and elaborate vocabulary at their disposal. When a wine is tasted by someone, its taste, smell, and feel in the mouth are all intermingled. The point of professional training is to decompose that totality into what are thought to be its elementary, constituent parts.

Lehrer identified 186 commonly used words in English-language wine talk (Fig. 1). She points out that in such words an evaluative element almost always permeates the other dimensions, including their putatively “descriptive” aspect. Thus “dry” is never just a description, it is an evaluation too. This is for two reasons. First, each word is used in relation to a presumed notion of typicity under which the specific wine is subsumed. For example, if one says that a specific rosé from Provence is “dry,” that is an accolade, because it is widely known that wines of that type are typically dry and are widely supposed to be like that. But if one says that a southern French white wine made from the viognier grape is “dry,” that may be a negative judgment, as such wines are widely understood to have luscious, somewhat sweet, peach-juice-like qualities, and saying this one is “dry” suggests failure on its part.
Fig. 1

A word cloud of wine tasting terms. (Source: Author, based on Lehrer 1975)

Second, most apparently descriptive words are rendered evaluative because they are deployed within a framework whereby judgments are made in and through a tripartite scale: too much/too little /just right. Therefore, the word “dry” usually is not used as a simple descriptor, except in specific, verbally limited contexts, such as the brief description on a label on a supermarket shelf placed in front of a wine. In wine tastings, where more verbal elaboration is expected and required, “dry” is usually put to work in statements that a given wine is “too dry,” “insufficiently dry,” or having the right level of dryness for that type of wine. The same logic applies to all the various standardized aspects of wine flavors, aromas, and textures that professional training attunes a person to “recognize.” For example, in terms of acidity, the three possibilities are “acetic” (and synonyms meaning too acidic) / “flabby” (and synonyms meaning too little acidity) / “crisp” and “piquant” (and synonyms meaning the right amount of acidity for wines of that type).

More generic referents work in terms of a bi-partite structure. For example, various aspects of a wine are summarized in the general term “balanced,” which has as its opposite “unbalanced” (which itself can take various forms, such as towards too much sweetness or too much dryness). Likewise, “hard” and its synonyms work in relation to, and become evaluative because of their juxtaposition against, “soft” and its synonyms (e.g., “smooth,” “silky,” “tender”). “Body” is a word that refers primarily to the texture of the wine. It is a particularly complex term, as evidenced by the fact that many words are used to describe it, on a scale running from more positive to more negative connotations: “sturdy,” “rich,” “forceful,” “hearty,” “round,” “robust,” “coarse,” “heavy,” “chewy,” “watery.” At a more general level again, terms of high (“noble,” “refined”) and low (“ordinary,” “common”) praise work to give an overall sense of the wine’s standing. This is both in relation to what it is explicitly being ranked against (e.g., the other wines in the room that day, earlier vintages of the same wine, all other DOCG Chiantis made in 2014, etc.), and also to what it is being compared with implicitly (e.g., the tasters’ individual and shared understandings of what the “ideal” Chianti is or should be like).

The socially shaped, and therefore historically mutable, nature of these typical wine-tasting words become apparent when one reads Lehrer’s piece more than 40 years after it was published. She notes that in terms of the tri-partite structure involving the term “sweet” and its synonyms, there were a host of words available to people of that time to describe perceived over-sweetness (e.g., “syrupy”). But there were very few ways of expressing the opposite notion of “too dry.” This was because at the time, sweetness as an attribute of table wine – that is, of wines that were not explicitly meant to be “sweet,” like Sauternes or Tokaji – was regarded by cognoscenti as indicative of a wine’s, or a wine style’s, crude and infantile nature, rendering them appealing only to people with debased palates. But this widely spread assumption, while not having died out in our own period, nonetheless has mutated, as different – and possibly more subtle – appreciations of the role of sugars in wines have taken hold in the wine world.

Changes in wine-tasting vocabulary encompass both altered meanings of established terms and the appearance of novel words. Such changes reflect and refract changes in broader cultural attitudes and the terms through which they are expressed (Lehrer 1975, p. 911). It was common in the 1970s to describe wines in very gendered and sexual(ized) terms (e.g., “voluptuous,” “racy,” “like an old lady,” etc.). The sweet/dry form of description operated at that time in highly tendentious ways, with “dry” being assumed as the epitome of good taste in wine for men, and “sweet” being understood as referring to the less subtle and noble types of wine that ladies, who were less capable of connoisseurship, drank. (It was also assumed that lady-like women must drink much less than men – David 2009.)

But wine tasters and talkers today must negotiate much more carefully the verbal-political minefield surrounding the attribution of “feminine” characteristics to a wine, for fear of being accused of patronizing, patriarchal dispositions (Hall and Lockshin 2000). This is especially so in Anglo-Saxon cultural contexts, where sensitivity to issues of gender, sexual, and “racial” politics is particularly pronounced. A male taster in such a context today might meet all sorts of opprobrium if he were unabashedly to pronounce that a soft, perfumed, delicate wine was “‘feminine.” So too might someone who called a wine “fat,” or even “obese” – words that were identified without qualm or comment by Lehrer in 1975 – find themselves being angrily opposed by others, in light of concerns to do with “fat shaming” in popular culture and everyday life. Here we see how broader politics, and politicized language, enter the more specific world of wine politics (Colman 2010). Terms that are felt to be offensive in Anglo-Saxon are still perhaps more acceptable in non-English-speaking contexts, such as French- and Italian-speaking wine worlds. But this is changing: more and more young wine professionals are trained in English, and through educational mechanisms pick up the political, and politicized, norms of appropriate language use in English.

Another, less immediately politicized way in which tasting words change over time involves new kinds of taster entering the field. In the mid-1970s, to say a wine was “oxidized” was to denounce it as undrinkable. But today, with the arrival into the wine world of new hipster wine producers and consumers, some tasters are especially enamored of “natural” wines that sometimes have pronounced oxidized qualities. Thus “oxidization” has become a possible term of praise, or at least of calibrated evaluation, and levels of oxidization are earnestly debated as desirable characteristics of wine, rather than shunned altogether (Smith Maguire 2018).

The Languages of Wine Professionals and ‘Amateurs’

Since the 1970s, wine has become of interest to greater numbers of people across the Developed World. An increasing number of wine drinkers have swelled the ranks of nonprofessional wine drinkers. These new entrants to the wine world have increasingly come from the upper working and lower- and middle- middle classes – that is, from social groups located in lower positions in class-based hierarchies than those upper middle class groupings who dominated wine consumption and connoisseurship throughout the twentieth century (Howland 2013). The number of wine drinkers has increased in Developed World countries like the USA, the UK, and the Nordic countries, which had little or no wine-drinking traditions among the mass of the population. At the same time, people from lower social classes have entered the field and started to drink and talk about wine.

These developments have had various important effects on wine talk. Such effects include attempts by elites to talk in novel ways about wine, which continue to distinguish them from less socially prestigious tasters, who talk about wine in ways understood still to be more naïve. For example, one way to demonstrate a high level of wine knowledge today is to avoid talking of major, large, and well-known regions, such as Burgundy and Bordeaux, which will at least have been heard of by the majority of wine drinkers. Instead, one can productively focus on new, emerging, and unlikely countries (e.g., Uruguay), hitherto obscure regions (e.g., the Jura region of France), and hyper-specific subregions, villages, and even particular plots and parcels of land. The more apparently obscure detail that can be paraded, the more one can demonstrate one’s difference from and superiority to two social groups. First, mass-market drinkers, drawn mostly from lower middle and working-class backgrounds, who can only identify wine areas in the grossest categories (e.g., “Italy,” “Chardonnay”). Second, conventional, old-style, traditionalistic, and usually upper middle drinkers, whose tastes run only to “classic” and highly recognized regions, styles, and grape varietals, and who are generally uncomprehending of the esoterica which younger, trendier, and more hip professionals and consumers are today very much attuned to in their search for oenological novelty (Smith Maguire 2018).

At the same time as increasingly diverse types of people are drinking wine, there has been more extensive professionalization of wine expertise. This involves ever more elaborate discourse, taught through ever more courses, programs, and examinations, which are offered by burgeoning numbers of professional bodies and universities (Inglis 2019). The “democratization” of wine consumption involves an ever-growing number of events, activities, and written texts like guidebooks and primers which are intended to pull into wine drinking activities ever broader sections of the populaces of both Developed World countries and of some Developing World countries too, most notably China (Howland 2013). Yet despite trends towards apparent democratization and popularization, talk about wine today still splits into what Bernstein (1971) would call “restricted” and “elaborate” codes, just as much as it did in the 1970s but with new patterns and novel participants. These codes refer to the typical sets of words and phrases used by non-expert, “naïve” tasters on the one side, and of professionally trained “experts” on the other.

Lehrer (1975, p. 918) had already noted that the wine drinking of most “amateurs” (in the English sense of nonprofessionals) is carried out in informal settings, and, therefore, such people have little or no need for verbal precision in their wine talk. Indeed, most of them possess a rather haphazard vocabulary, picked up in random ways in diverse locations, including a smattering of more technical terms picked up from professionals in contexts like wine fairs. This point still seems valid today. Between the poles of high professionalism and utter nonprofessionalism exist those persons that (in French parlance) are another kind of “amateur,” that is “amateurs du vin” (Hennion 2007). These are people lacking explicit, professional wine knowledge and training, and the technical argots which go with and constitute these, yet who nonetheless possess some sort of publicly demonstrated passion for wine, and who can talk about it in some way or another that is partly informed by, or imitates to some extent, professional vocabularies.

Recognition by professionals (and perhaps lay-people too) of someone as a “wine expert” does not just involve them being able to taste wine in professionally recognized ways. It also crucially depends upon them being able to talk about wine in ways that are thought by professionals to be appropriately “professional.” Professional training involves both the learning of formal, scientific names of odor components, which can be done relatively quickly and efficiently, and the learning of names of wine types, styles, regions and subregions, specific wineries, particular vintages, and so on. The latter process is generally much slower, because of the huge amount of information that must be processed, retained in the memory, and then publicly performed, in examinations or in diverse professional settings (Zucco 2011). Professional training, therefore, encompasses both extreme precision in naming flavors and scents, and great verbal virtuosity in describing a wine’s qualities and affordances. It is often said that describing a wine is “more art than science” (Randerson 2001). But it would be more accurate to say that some people in the wine world think it is more an art, while some people think it can and should be done in the manner of the natural sciences. These two dispositions can, and indeed do, exist in tension with each other in the contemporary wine world.

For someone occupying the social role of “wine critic,” part of the job, and a major way to stay ahead of the pack of one’s professional peer group, is to be able to describe wines in ways that others, especially lay people, cannot. The latter would certainly be unlikely to describe a Montalcino from Tuscany as possessing flavors of “graphite” mixed with “pâte de fruit, hoisin sauce, warm ganache, and well-roasted applewood” (the words of James Suckling, wine critic, cited in Bosker 2015). This sort of verbal display is not just an expression of personal virtuosity. It also works to confer legitimacy and prestige on the wines that are being talked about. As Bosker (2015) puts it, “spending hundreds of dollars on a vintage with aromas of ‘leather,’ ‘eucalyptus,’ and ‘Japanese maple’ sounds more justifiable than splurging on one with flavors of ‘canned olives with black pepper”. But the more elaborate the phraseology you use, the more open to question you may be, possibly being ridiculed by people outside your specific cultural circle as hopelessly pretentious, or – probably more dangerous for one’s self-esteem and standing – being dismissed as foolish by other kinds of wine professional.

The increasing professionalization of wine-related activities over the course of the twentieth century took various forms, largely pioneered in universities, ranging from ever more input into the wine-making process by the sciences of chemistry and biology, to the putting of the verbal description of wines onto a more “scientific” footing. The latter activity aimed to rescue wine description from what were perceived as the ignorant terminologies of lay-people on the one side, and the overblown, imprecise, and misleading rhetoric of wine critics and other journalistic and belles-lettres types on the other. The underlying assumption here was that unless language is tamed, domesticated, and trimmed in light of scientific principles, it gets in the way of actually grasping what are thought to be the “real” tastes of wine. Wine critics, by contrast, believed – and still do – that it is precisely through an elaborate vocabulary that one gets at wine’s essences (Melcher and Schooler 1996). So, either more talk or less talk is the preferred way really to get at wine and truly to taste it in its very essence.

The motives of those scientists engaged in endeavors to purge language of allegedly extraneous components encompassed both the positivist drive to name things as precisely as possible, and also the commercial ambition to get a better handle on what made “high quality” wines, such that they could be sold at premium prices. In the second half of the twentieth century, figures like Maynard Amerine in California sought to develop what were regarded as “objective” methods to get beyond any sense of subjectivity in descriptions of wine. The aim was to find out what a given wine is “really like,” so that it could be known how to make it free from any flaws and render it wholly true to its type (Phillips 2016). Such scientists strove to create a context-free vocabulary that could directly access a wine’s supposed essential qualities. Amerine and others wanted to ban words like “austere,” “character,” “complete,” “complex,” “fat,” “suave,” “supple” – all commonly used in wine criticism of the time – because they were felt to lack any precise meaning, or indeed any meaning at all (Lehrer 1975). Mere wine talk was to be replaced with precise wine language. This is a demand that continues to be made by many wine scientists today (Matthews 2015).

The obvious objection that can be made of such an approach is that it strips any sense of human pleasure out of wine terminology, exactly the feature wine critics want to emphasize. For those not convinced of the merits of this stripping bare of wine language, “some wine-talk still aims not [merely] to describe tastes and odors but metaphorically to evoke the pleasure they give” (Shapin 2012, p. 7). Each side in these controversies in effect characterizes the other with the epithet “merely”: scientific terminology (which itself is a disputed terrain among different groupings of wine scientists who propose such a thing in the first place) is taken by its humanistic critics as “merely” describing properties without giving a sense of the joy these can invoke in the human being. Meanwhile, the florid talk of the wine critic is said by the scientists (who at least agree among themselves over what is unacceptable language) to be just as inaccurate as the naïve talk of the lay-person. The American Association of Wine Economists, for example, in recent years has dubbed wine critic discourse “intrinsically bullshit-prone,” and has sought to create an ever more precise descriptive vocabulary (Quandt 2007). Wine critics respond in kind with a defense of the humanistic values – pleasure, joy, civilization – that it is their (self-proclaimed) role to nurture, through speaking about wine in nonscientifically reductionist ways. No definitive, universally agreed upon terminology exists which unites these two domains. However, literally hundreds of books currently exist, mostly aimed at beginner-level drinkers, which usually provide a section with a list of basic descriptive terminology which combines, in often haphazard ways, elements drawn from both wine science and wine criticism.

As these debates have worn on, the scientists and those in the wine world allied to them, have continued in pursuit of what are taken to be ever more precise descriptive vocabularies. One of the most famous innovations is that of Ann Noble, a professor at one of the world’s leading viticulture research centers, the University of California at Davis. In 1984, she revealed to the world the Wine Aroma Wheel (for a visual representation, see This is a circular chart containing six dozen descriptors that can be deployed to describe wines by their smell. These are organized into generic categories such as “spicy” and “fruity,” and then into either specific tastes (e.g., “black pepper” as a type of spice) or further subcategories (e.g., “tree fruit,” like “peach,” or “tropical fruit,” like “banana”). The chart works to exclude “hedonic” terms, i.e., words which refer to human sensory pleasure. Later attempts, by both scientists and allied industry professionals, to create precision vocabularies owe much to the Wheel. For example, the Guild of Sommeliers encourages description of wines by naming chemical compounds that create smells. Raspberry and strawberry hints “should be rendered as ‘esters,’ peppercorn or rosemary aromas as ‘rotundones,’ and gooseberry or grapefruit notes as ‘thiols’” (Bosker 2015).

Because of the Wheel’s reduction of wine to certain essential components, describable in simple words, that can be understood by anyone at all, it has subsequently been used as a kind of lingua franca of wine scientists and other kinds of industry professional across national borders and linguistic divides. In this sense, it is like other universalizing and border-crossing devices, which are important parts of wine globalization (Inglis 2019). Another such innovation is the 100-point rating system developed, also in the 1980s, by the American critic Robert Parker (McCoy 2005). Whether they come from Buenos Aires or Shanghai, a person can understand that 92 stars out of 100 means a superlative wine, just as they can understand that “lemon” is a predominant characteristic of a given wine. Parker’s career as – at least in the 1990s and early 2000s – allegedly the world’s most influential wine critic, has combined a capacity to carry out the traditional critic’s role of ostentatious verbal elaboration, together with the pithy note-taking of the journalistic inquirer, and the putative precision of the scientist. The points-based system implies that Parker knows exactly what counts as a 90-or-higher wine, as opposed to a mere “79.” Parker’s points system suggests that he is master of a numerical language of wine, a form of mastery that was rapidly copied by a host of imitators, each with their own numerical -rating system. Yet Parker’s pretentions in this direction have been bitterly attacked by his critics, who accuse him of engaging in the peddling of heavily-biased judgments – involving overestimating the merits of heavy, fruit-driven reds at the expense of every other style – in pseudo-scientific and faux-mathematical garb.

Wine Language, Social Hierarchy, and Community

The above scenarios illustrate a broader point: any specific language offered by particular actors in the wine world, intended as a way to evaluate wine in one way or another, will almost certainly be attacked by other actors who possess, and want to maximize their position in the field through deploying, alternative languages that are based around other values and principles (Bourdieu 1993).

More broadly still, wine may also act in some social settings as a communicative tool. The talk that people engage in about it may be generative of specific social states, such as happiness, sociability, and group solidarity. Wine talk may also express and create social hierarchies, dramatizing and reproducing the differential social statuses of participants in the wine-based conversation. Wine talk may also involve forms of speech which express and reflect upon these various states of affairs (Finkelstein and Quiazon 2007, p. 20). Such talk can, therefore, either bind or divide people, and may also be deployed to comment on those dynamics by people who are involved in them or who are observing them.

Lehrer’s (1975) interest in wine talk was in fact stimulated by her observation of people, almost always men, showing off their wine knowledge to each other. Each one implicitly or explicitly was seeking to put the other(s) down, through displays of wine esoterica and grandiloquence. The bellicose “gamesmanship”-style uses to which wine talk can be put is nicely captured in Stephen Potter’s (1952) satirical advice to those who want to use wine words as verbal weapons. He cautions the wine novice – who otherwise would be trapped within the awkward verbal fumbling of the naïve taster, but who is keen to weaponize wine knowledge as a way of gaining social distinction and mastery – to adopt the following “ploys”:

Don’t say too much about the wine being ‘sound’ or ‘pleasant’ – people will think you have simply been mugging up on a wine-merchant’s catalogue. It is a little better to talk in broken sentences and say, ‘It has ... don’t you think?’. Or, ‘It’s a little bit cornery,’ or something equally random like ‘Too many tramlines’ … [U]se this last phrase because it passes the test of the boldly meaningless. (Potter 1952, p. 139, emphasis added)

“Boldly meaningless” statements may flummox the opponent and put him (it is usually a him) at a distinct oenological disadvantage.

In stark contrast to such instances of wine talk as verbal warfare, discussions concerning wine may also involve the productive and genial sharing of experience between people. In “phatic” wine-related communication, linkages between people in a tasting environment are forged. Statements along the lines of “Now, this is nice…” can be used by a speaker, consciously or not, to gain reassurance from others that what they are tasting is indeed “in” the wine itself and is not being projected onto it by their imaginations alone. Speakers murmur approvingly of each other’s tentative pronouncements, perhaps deploying a “gustatory mmh” as a way of keeping the interaction flowing between mouthfuls (Wiggins 2002). In such scenarios, the powers and affordances of wine are brought forth not by a particular person naming in isolation discrete components or sensations, but instead emerge in and through collective and ongoing conversation (Hampton 2012). Letting the wine “speak” to you, temporarily delegating judgment to others, anticipating one’s own reactions through other’s exclamations – all of these are part of the wine-based creation of sociable intersubjectivity (Hennion 2007, p. 134).

As Vannini et al. (2010, p. 387) describe it, a wine tasting being led by an authoritative figure, such as a representative from a winery, works like this: as “the pourer pours, I must listen. As the wine speaks, I must taste. As I taste I must speak. As I speak I must make sense.” Wine talk here works as a collective performance. In ritualized interactions like a formal tasting session, as each person makes her/his statements about what the wine is like and what it is doing to them, collective sense-making goes on, forging an inter-subjectively shared milieu of meaning. The taste sensations one feels in one’s own mouth and nostrils are put into words, in so doing pushing the otherwise highly personal experience of the wine’s taste and smell out into the public domain, potentially transforming that experience through the process of rendering it accountable to others. Pronouncements of one’s own sensations segue into the picking up of some of the vocabulary used by other people in the tasting as they put into words what they have felt and feel. When individuals start to use the same words together, this focuses everyone’s attention on the same perceived qualities of the wine: “I’m getting a lot of lime juice,” “Yes, I think the acidity is quite pronounced,” “And what about the lemon peel?” The verbally led interaction may be guided by the authoritative vocabulary of the group leader, who usually occupies some sort of professional status position. However, vocabulary may emerge in and through the interaction itself, among the nonprofessional peer group.

In these cases, there are resonances with Habermas’s (1987) account of the more hierarchical and more democratic elements of particular interactional settings which are created in and through verbal intercourse between participants. Perhaps the “ideal speech situation” of wine may be said to occur when professionalized authority figures forget their rehearsed script and preconceived verbal descriptors, and join in the excited, buzzing conversation of the nonprofessionals. The now nonhierarchically organized group searches collectively to find ever more apt ways of depicting that which all of them are sensing, both individually and – through the medium of shared words – together.

Towards Hyper-Specificity

Today’s wine industry, which of course supplies the wines that different sorts of people talk about, is a multi-billion Dollar and highly globalized business (Inglis 2019). It is dominated by huge, trans-national drinks corporations, which own very extensive portfolios of wine production outlets, ranging from mass-market branded wines made in vast amounts and sold at low prices in supermarkets, to very small-scale, prestige wineries making wines for elite clienteles. There is also a plethora of medium-sized and small-scale producers, who either struggle to deal with volatile market conditions, or who have positioned themselves in lucrative niches. Wine-making on a significant scale not only happens now in the familiar territories of the so-called Old World (France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Greece, etc.) and New World (the USA, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand) but also in emerging areas, either in hotter or cooler climates (e.g., Brazil and Thailand on the one side, the UK and Denmark on the other). There has never at any point in history been more wine produced, aimed at more varied sorts of people, and sold under more diverse labels, than is the case today (Lukacs 2002). This unprecedented situation, which points towards much wider issues to do with global wealth and technological advancement at the present point in history, has important effects on how wine is expressed in language. Someone wanting to buy a bottle (or some other container) of wine today faces a massive, and, therefore, potentially baffling, number of offerings, encompassing a dizzying array of options in terms of country, region, style, quality level, price range, and other factors.

Given that there is no universally accepted and uncontested definition of a wine’s “quality,” and therefore of how good or bad value for money it is, then the consumer becomes highly dependent on the words of other people (Unwin 1999), who seek to define for them what counts as a wise or foolish purchasing choice (Ponte and Gibbon 2005). This is particularly so because most wine purchases are made in situations where a buyer does not have the opportunity to taste the wine before buying it. She/he must make informed guesses about the “intrinsic” nature of the wine by reading or listening to “cues” and “clues” provided by wine industry professionals about the “extrinsic” qualities of the wine being considered. These latter include the apparent prestige and reputation of the winery, the wine-maker, the owner (be it a person or a company), and the region. Prestige is both presented in, and constructed through, such linguistic forms as the written reviews of critics, and symbolic forms like prizes awarded by judging panels (Allen and Germov 2010). Therefore, the buyer is surrounded not just by myriad options as to what to buy and drink, but also by a dense and often contradictory web of language, expressed in diverse, and usually tendentious, texts combining verbal and visual elements which are authored by multiple interested parties.

Various paradoxes emerge here. There is more choice than ever before (for Developed World consumers with at least a modicum of disposable income). Partly as a response to this cornucopia, there is more information available to consumers than ever before. There are myriad tasting notes; star ratings; medals; magazine features; critics’ reviews; information given out at festivals, tastings, and on-site winery tours, multiple online information platforms (Thach 2009); sommeliers and others offering advice in particular locales like high-end restaurants; and so on (Howland 2013). All this verbal information means that the symbolic “entrance fee” that an individual must pay to participate in the wine world is lower than ever before. You do not need to know anything at all – that is, you need possess no field-specific cultural capital – to go to a festival and start sipping. This is a far cry from the much more exclusive, upper middle class- and aristocratic-dominated wine world of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, where one had at least to be au fait with “wine French,” to be able to navigate one’s way around the cryptically expressed wine list or merchant’s catalogue. But there is now so much information, ostensibly intended to help the consumer pick their way through the multitude of offerings that that leads to potential information overload and great confusion. And much of the information is tendentious, verbalized by those who want the consumer to think in certain ways, with the end result of buying their particular wares.

Even in an era of relative “democratization” of wine (Howland 2013), the mere fact that more people know at least a little bit about wine than was common until recently does not mean that possessing even a reasonable amount of knowledge is enough to pick one’s way through the wine world’s thickets confidently and successfully. What in the past may have been regarded as quite specialist knowledge – e.g., knowing the differences between French regions, being aware of the differences between Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, or between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc – has spread out to a much wider audience. In so doing, such basic knowledge is no longer sufficient, either for people in the business, or for consumers with aspirations to be regarded as connoisseurs. It is not enough to know the basic differences between so-called Old and New Worlds. One must know not just the characteristics of countries and regions, but of subregions and even – for those most invested in this type of game – sub-subregions, parcels of land and specific wineries, even apparently obscure ones. The name of the game today is the geography – simultaneously “real” and “imagined” – of hyper-specificity. This involves the ability to name and describe ever greater particularities, of wines, wine-makers, properties, terrains, and suchlike (Smith Maguire 2010).

That has been partly true for a long time of connoisseurship in and of the Old World. The professional and amateur enthusiast both were meant to know a great deal of detail about the grand regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux. But now such specificity is also required for people who want to talk about more hitherto obscure parts of the Old World which have now come into the limelight (e.g., Croatia, Georgia), as well as the whole New World, from Patagonia through Finger Lakes to Otago. The ability to engage in verbal hyper-particularization operates as an important means to gain distinction for both professionals and consumers today. Being able to articulate in the most minute detail where, how, when, and by whom a specific wine was made allows one to display that one is at the top of one’s professional game, or at the forefront of consumer drinking trends.

Up until about the 1990s, it was thought that only “great” (long-established, high prestige, well-known) regions and sites, mostly in the Old World, could be described as having “terroir.” This is a complex and contradictory term which different people mean different things by. On a more restrictive understanding, it refers to how both grapes and wine express the soil and wider physical environment of a particular place. On a broader definition, it also encompasses what people have “traditionally” done in that place in terms of wine-making practices, and also how today they work to extract from the grapes the maximum expression of the place they grew in. The linguistic and conceptual ambiguity rests in the fact that different speakers may in any particular utterance be using the more restricted or broader understanding, but it often remains unclear what exactly they intend the term to refer to. Wine scientists are often hostile to “terroir talk” because of its imprecision, while wine critics often embrace it, precisely because it possesses a productive generality and fluidity, which allows them to riff endlessly on its supposed qualities, expressions, and affordances (Matthews 2015).

The term terroir has been in many some superseded by the broader term “provenance,” such that that terroir becomes a seemingly universally available quality for all wines, regardless of region of origin, in both Old and New Worlds (Smith Maguire 2018, p. 13). Smith Maguire (2018) indicates the various verbal and symbolic frames through which the attribution of provenance, and through the means of hyper-particularizing verbal reference, works. These are: transparency (knowing exactly where a wine came from, in terms of the most specific level of detail – e.g., from this particular one acre plot on a southwest facing slope at 1200 metres above sea-level); heritage (being able to vocalize the regional and/or family wine-making traditions that a wine supposedly comes out of and expresses); genuineness (being able to say how a wine is a result of handicraft, soil, and environment); and external validity (the allocation of prestige to a wine by such institutional mechanisms as governmental classifications, like the French AOC system, prizes awarded at international fairs, critics’ glowing reviews, and so on).

These frames are used both by industry professionals to talk about wine to consumers, and also by consumers to talk about wines with professionals and with each other. While the frames are deployed in almost all wine-making areas across the world today, nonetheless Smith Maguire (2018) notes that the heritage and external validity frames predominate in talk about Old World wines, whereas New World discussions tend to deploy the transparency and genuineness frames more.

The frames are not necessarily internally coherent. For example, the heritage frame inevitably tends towards claims to the observation of tradition in the wine-making, yet that must be balanced against the risk of the wine-making being seen to be ossified, and an emphasis on heritage must not eclipse rival but equally potentially beneficial claims, such as innovation and keeping up with the times. The genuineness frame is also potentially contradictory, caught between claims as to the wine being the genuine expression of the soil and environment (oftentimes summarized in the now globally used terroir terminology), or it being the genuine expression of the wine-maker’s vision and skills. Usually the competing dispositions are welded together in ways that obscure their potential logical antagonism. The figure of the wine-maker can also pull in different directions: the wine-maker as peasant (who merely acts as mid-wife to the fecund earth as it is expressed in the grapes); or the wine-maker as artist (someone who imposes their creative vision on Nature); or sometimes, somewhat more rarely, the wine-maker as scientist (equipped with new technologies like stainless steel tanks for fermentation). The latter is a trope often deployed by wine-makers and merchants in “backwater” areas, such as the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe such as Romania and Bulgaria, which are keen to display their wine-making “modernity.”

Capacities for the verbal hyper-specification of wine, which suggest the ability to draw subtle distinctions, paradoxically go together with the corollary of thinking in terms of dyadic simplifications. The more a professional or passionate amateur is able to talk in highly specific terms about wines, wineries and winemakers that they like, the more these are juxtaposed against what are defined and assumed as their opposites, namely, mass-produced, industrial, commercial, branded wines, that are thought to lack any real personality, could have been made anywhere by anyone with certain impersonal technical skills, and which are inauthentic in every way. These are presented as the diametric opposites of wines and producers represented as genuinely “small-scale,” “natural,” “hand-crafted,” “local,” “authentic,” and of fulsome “personality” (but perhaps possessing not too much “personality,” as that may go against demands that the wine be “typical” of its specific subregion) (Inglis 2019).

Hyper-specification talk can work to achieve certain purposes. It has, for example, helped to reestablish French regions as of interest to hipster professionals and customers, taking these areas symbolically out of the hands of the crusty old bores in places like London and New York City who fustily stick with their traditional French reds, and the billionaires who are so enamored of Bordeaux and Burgundy that they have driven prices for the most prestigious operations up to astonishing levels. It has also allowed hipsters to exercise new forms of wine distinction and mastery in an era of wider wine democratization (Smith Maguire 2018).

The Languages of Selling Wine

Despite all the hyper-specificity talk, it remains the case that most wine made and sold today is the result of scientifically managed industrial production, coming from regions dominated by massive agri-businesses. Precisely because of its industrial nature, marketing of such wine tries to stress its locality and thus its “personality.” Wine is generally sold in ways that present “territory,” because claims to territorial origins give the product a virtuous “halo effect” (Sutanonpaiboon and Atkin 2012). But the territory marketed can sometimes be as generic as a whole country, rather than a specific region within it (Ballestrini and Gamble 2006). The supposed locality of wine is stressed in marketing even when grapes may be sourced from all over very large territories, and when the winery resembles a chemical processing plant more than the supposedly traditional chateau or hacienda that likely appears on the label (Overton and Banks 2015). This kind of marketing involves the reterritorialization of diffuse production systems, with grapes sourced from across very wide areas being presented as coming from “our place” (Smith Maguire 2010).

In addition to mass-market wines that are sold under brand names, there are also luxury brands – of which the most characteristic are the famous Champagne marques – as well as small-scale wines that have some real claim to be marketed as “artisanal.” For lower-end, mass-market wines, industry professionals feel that there is little brand loyalty among consumers, relative to strong brand loyalty for other commodities like ketchup and soap powder. Hence labels and packaging must really shout out to the potential purchaser (Jarvis and Goodman 2005). Marketing languages are understood by those who create them as being centrally about market differentiation in a context of hyper-abundant offerings to consumers and oversupply (Parga-Dans and Gonzalez 2017). (A sense of the massive number of different wines available today may be gained by browsing through a comprehensive online repository such as

This situation is made even more challenging for marketers as they also widely believe that consumer choice in wine is more complicated and potentially fraught than for other goods (Finkelstein and Quiazon 2007). Research seems to have found that many consumers shun the multiple information sources intended for them, and so purchases can be relatively uninformed and more “spur of the moment” in nature than reflected upon (Chaney 2000). Customers are also thought to be particularly risk sensitive in various ways, fearing such outcomes as paying too much, getting bad value, choosing wine with the wrong sort of taste, making social faux pas by buying an inappropriate style or quality level, and so on. Therefore, consumers are assumed by marketers to engage in various risk reduction strategies, and marketers feel that they should deploy verbal and visual languages to assist and exploit these strategies.

Generally speaking, one may say that the bigger the company and the more industrial the wine, the glitzier the verbal and visual languages of the packaging will be (Overton and Banks 2015). Conventional wisdom in the marketing wing of the wine industry very much centers on the perceived rise to prominence of Australian wines in the 1980s and 1990s in the USA, UK, and other important national markets, as being in large part due to the deployment of colorful labels, eye-grabbing imagery, and imaginative and appealing brand names. The most spectacularly successful brand in terms of global market share is often identified as the Yellowtail brand (Veseth 2012). The professional and academic wine marketing literature stresses the market success of selling industrial wine with simple images which are possessed of low informational value (Van Tonder and Mulder 2015). Bottle or bag-in-box packaging is designed to create the “personality traits” of a given brand (the “brand constellation” in marketing language). This is achieved through holistic design methods, encompassing colors, typography, and background and foreground imagery.

The marketing literature, both professional and academic, encourages (or demands) producers to sell wines in ways cognizant of what are presented as consumer needs and likes. One such area is the naming of the particular wine, or winery, or brand that covers multiple offerings. If a new name is to be invented, it must be carefully calibrated to current and future market dynamics. Neethling’s (2017) review of naming in the South African industry indicates patterns to be found across the world in terms of nomenclature. Wines, wineries, and brands may be named in terms of: estate owners and winemakers (“Kosie du Toit,” “Graham Beck”); patriarchs, matriarchs, and other ancestors deemed worthy of commemoration (“Laurens Campher,” “The Eleanor Chardonnay” - named after an earlier proprietor’s wife); family names (“The Four Cousins”), relationships (“The Grandfather”) or children; historical figures associated with the region or country (“Lord Somerset,” an early governor of the Cape Colony), who often had nothing to do with viticulture, and who may have scurrilous reputations and were controversial in their time – e.g., “Jan Blanx” – this being an efficient way to make the wine seem quirky, edgy, or somehow rebellious); wholly invented, imaginary, and metaphorical names; hagiographical (real or fictional, such as “St. James” or “The Saint”) or godlike names (“Juno,” “Jupiter”); and fictional characters, often female and sexualized (e.g., “Party Girl,” “Wild Girl,” “Lady in Red”).

The degree to which the naming imagery is personalized or nonpersonalized may vary with the size of the wine-making operation: a small-scale, family-owned winery may well have “real” individuals to name the wine after, in a way that a big conglomerate operation does not. But that would not prevent the latter from using both generic terms (“The Lady”) as well as invented people (“Lucinda’s White”) in its marketing.

Vulgar, cheeky, and risqué names like “Fifth Leg” and “Arrogant Frog” are increasingly familiar, at least in English-speaking producing countries, notably Australia (Finkelstein and Quiazon 2007). Such nomenclature has been copied elsewhere, as in the case of “Fat Bastard” from southern France (Barber and Almanza 2006). Explicitly politically resistive names are a feature of recent times: “Gran Cerdo” (Big Pig) from Spain is a protest against the financiers who refused to aid financially the novice winemakers who named their wines thus. “Goats do Roam” was invented by a South African company annoyed by EU regulations that prevented them from calling their red wine “Rhone-style.”

Neethling (2017) also notes the tensions involved in the choice of language to be used, both for wine names and for label information, reflecting wider controversies about the politics of language. The trend for Afrikaans-speaking producers to use English in all packaging, even for the domestic market where Afrikaaner consumers are involved, has been a source of some anger amongst some of the latter group. This parallels the anguish felt by many smaller French producers who feel they are constrained to label, at least in part, in English or to spell out the grape varietals on the front and back labels (Cohen et al. 2013). This is a phenomenon satirized by the Languedoc winemaker Jean-Claude Mas, who sells his wines internationally under the label “Arrrogant Frog,” a title which aggressively takes on not only issues to do with Anglo-Saxon stereotypes of French oenological superiority and high-handedness, but also reflects upon the trend towards labelling and marketing French wines in the English language ( One might note here the interesting phenomenon of French back labels on bottles with information in both French and English, where the English bears almost no correspondence to the French text. While the latter “speaks” in the voice of more traditional French concerns about terroir and traditional food pairings (e.g., this wine complements foie gras), the English text is often written in the globalized language of basic tastes (“lemony”) and transnational cuisine (“good with chicken”). There is, however, not a uniform trend towards the Anglification of bottle information. The marketing of Portuguese wines in the UK, for example, has involved English back label text, but also the deliberate retention of Portuguese text on front and back labels, in order to connote authenticity, and to give a sense that these are terroir rather than generic, mass-market wines (Domingos 2016).

Wine labels on bottles, both on the front and back, are certainly worthy of further reflection. They could sometimes appear on wines in the ancient Mediterranean world (Baldwin 1967), but they primarily emerged in the late nineteenth century to prevent fraud (Teil 2017). Producers in Champagne were particularly active in developing the sorts of pictorial and linguistic devices we see on labels today (Guy 1999). The verbal and visual languages that labels express are the main information sources about wines for most drinkers most of the time. “The first taste is almost always with the eye,” as Mueller and Lockshin (2008, p. 1) note. The label is the “front line” between consumers and producers, as mediated through marketing mechanisms (Barber and Almanza 2006). The label is the primary means by which the wine becomes somehow tangible to a person who will usually only be able to engage with it fully after it has been purchased (Spawton 1991). Given this, the label cues the consumer to consider extrinsic markers of the wine’s quality, such as whether it seems to be worth the price, the latter being enacted through the iconography on the label(s) (Sutanonpaiboon and Atkin 2012).

The wine market is now flooded “with colors, shapes, designs and sizes for all price ranges,” such that the number of labels in the world at the present time is astonishing (Barber et al. 2007, p. 76). It has been estimated that 590 million square meters of labelling material are used for wine labels each year, servicing more than 100,000 different brands or named wines and wineries (Van Tonder and Mulder 2015). The very large – and primarily Anglophone – literature on wine marketing reports multiple and often contradictory claims as to how potential consumers actually engage with wine labels, and with marketing more generally (see, for example, the many research articles in volumes of The International Journal of Wine Marketing, The International Journal of Wine Business Research, and The Journal of Wine Research). A wine label is construable as a complex text that can transform the “quotidian need” for a glass of wine “into imagined extravagances.” The label – especially the more aesthetically ambitious varieties – can also transfer its own aesthetic qualities onto the wine, suggesting sensibilities such as sublimity, superiority, earthiness, or subtlety (Finkelstein and Quiazon 2007, p. 20). A label may also be understood as a “knowledge fix.” It may be construed as what Eden (2011) calls a “boundary object.” It is a device for communication between wine producers and consumers. It exists in those two worlds simultaneously allowing (or not, as the case may be) for information exchange between the two realms. It may simplify some types of information, while retaining the complexity of others. In a more critical vein, the label can be understood as a technology of governmentality, which entices the consumer to enact their supposedly “free” purchasing power in the market place (Miller and Rose 1997).

In terms of the different roles of front and back labels (Charters et al. 2000), the former may operate as an agent of imaginative evocation, while the latter usually has a more utilitarian informative function, although this may be minimal in some cases (Rocchi and Stefani 2006). The front label especially tells stories. It makes statements about, and aimed at, the consumer’s self-understanding and self-presentation, about their lifestyle aspirations, and about how they want to be perceived by their peers – as the classy type who brings a bottle of classic Bordeaux to the formal dinner or the party animal who brings a fun wine to get the party started, and so on (Chaney 2000). The front label also serves as a narrative or “story-book” about the producer of the wine (Barber et al. 2007), with marketing wisdom convinced of the need to tell “great stories” about those who (apparently) made the wine, so as to appeal to consumers by forging some sort of quasi-personal connection with them (Finkelstein and Quiazon 2007).

More massive logos and typeface are widely assumed to connote low sophistication products, which may work for groups such as young people having boisterous parties. More youthful consumers are thought to find visual and verbal references to popular culture particularly appealing (Barber et al. 2007) – hence the current trend for labelling that has comic-strip artwork on it. Other verbal and visual languages are felt necessary to convince more mature and affluent groups that what is in the bottle accords with their lifestyles and sense of themselves (Jarvis et al. 2010). The group that marketers define as “millennials” are thought to be focused less on country and region of origin, and more on prizes, appealing imagery, and (for the purposes of partying) the level of alcohol content (Elliot and Barth 2012). These factors suggest that location means less to some consumer groups (such as young adults who are casual drinkers, who equally well might switch to beer or spirits) but more to others (such as young adult hipsters, strongly invested in the social cachet that comes with hyper-specific wine knowledge) (Atkin and Thach 2012).

Labels and packaging are also replete with what designers believe to be gender-appropriate cues (Barber and Almanza 2006). Women are believed to be more diligently information-seeking than men (Atkin et al. 2007). While women are said to want more information in general, and regarding food pairings especially, men are variously said either to prefer bold colors and images, or more technical discussions that they can glean knowledge from, which they can then display to their peers. Women are conversely thought to choose wines less for showing-off and more for unpretentious reasons to do with socializing, especially with other women (Thach 2012; Barber and Almanza 2006). Some analysts think that women are more influenced by front labels (Barber et al. 2007), and by labels emphasizing the sensory qualities of the wine. Conversely, men are thought to be more attuned to presentations of the wine that emphasize both its snob value (involving stereotyped iconography of “class,” like engraved pictures of chateaux), and its sex appeal (e.g., having pictures of attractive and enticing women on the front, which are meant to represent the sexualized sensuousness of the wine) (Le Bel 2005). Despite wine tasting vocabulary becoming less explicitly chauvinist, all sorts of gender stereotypes are nonetheless at work in how wine is labelled and packaged, with those responsible for marketing engaged in imagining and reaching out to “men” and “women” in all sorts of essentializing manners.

Yet despite all these widespread assumptions about which kinds of labels “work” for which kinds of consumers, as with every other domain of semiotics, it is not at all guaranteed that particular groups will actually respond in the ways marketers intend (Jarvis et al. 2010). Specific individuals, and perhaps whole groups of people, may reject the intended projection of meaning. A label may be disliked because it is perceived to be trying too hard to be “cool,” or because it is felt to involve too many gimmicks, or because it involves either too little or too much information (Van Tonder and Mulder 2015). Nonetheless, marketers can learn from their mistakes. They know to avoid one-size-fits-all strategies and to customize packaging for different groups in different countries. For example, colorfully splashy labels have been found to work for younger drinkers in the USA but not in France, where even youth prefer more classical imagery (chateau pictures, non-italics Latin script) as a signification of quality (Celhay and Trinquecoste 2008). Avoiding going too far away from established consumer expectations of what a specific style of wine should look like, and deliberately engaging in only moderate innovations in packaging, is a current mantra among marketers. This is a group stung by failures attributed to over-innovation, such as the flopping of brands with names like Rock’n’Rhone (Celhay and Trinquecoste 2017).

Over the last 20 years or so, labelling has changed in two inter-related ways at once: more and more information has appeared on both front and (especially) back labels, while certain forms of simplification have also been introduced. In the Old World, especially France, label design had remained relatively static throughout the twentieth century. So-called classical packaging involved minimal verbal information: no indication of grape varietal (because it was assumed that the buyer knew that, for example, a white Burgundy was made only from a very restricted range of grape types, usually Chardonnay or Aligoté), and often an engraved picture of a chateau (signifying un-changing tradition, grandeur, etc.). This was done to present over the long-term an image of constant quality (Jennings and Wood 1994).

But in the much more competitive and globalized wine industry of the twenty-first century, even the most apparently conservative operations have had to rethink their marketing strategies, or at least have been told by a new cadre of marketing experts that they must do so or go bust. This cadre claims that the “new consumer” – i.e., those from nontraditional wine-drinking groups, who want to buy wine, but know little about it – find such old-style labels intimidating and off-putting (Barber and Almanza 2006). Labels must therefore change, in the direction pioneered by the Australian industry in the 1980s. To the horror of some in the French industry, the grape varietal is now widely demanded to appear on both front and back labels, to tell consumers directly what they may expect to find inside (Peterson 2014). The “new consumer” is said to be able to recognize those (originally French, now globalized) varietals that are planted now in almost every wine-growing country, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay. These must be name-checked on the label, in large part because wines made with globally recognized grapes can often be sold at higher prices than those made with more obscure varietals, which are as yet relatively unknown outside of their region of origin. This globalization of certain grapes has gone together with an increasingly simplified dyadic tasting vocabulary aimed at mass-market consumers. The back label, irrespective of where the wine comes from, contains notes indicating that the wine is “fruity” or “dry,” and suggests basic food pairings, like “fish,” “chicken,” “pasta with tomato sauce,” and suchlike – the basic categories of the globalized industrial food economy of the Developed World (Domingos 2016). It is also no longer enough just to give the region where the wine came from, for the country must be prominently indicated too, again to spell things out completely for the imagined consumer who lacks the cultural capital to decipher the cryptic and brief messages found on old-style labels.

At the same time as these forms of simplification and making explicit what was previously implicit have developed, back labels have become increasingly lengthy and loquacious, waxing lyrical about what is imagined to be sellable to those consumers thought to possess at least some wine-relevant knowledge. Such labels contain evocative descriptions of terroir and increasingly detailed accounts of provenance. There seem to be some national differences as to which emphasis works best for higher-end consumers. Stressing the regionality of a wine may particularly play in the USA and Australia, while indicating the winning of prizes through verbal and visual means (e.g., by including a small image of a medal) works better in New Zealand (Sutanonpaiboon and Atkin 2012). Prizes consecrate the wine (Allen and Germov 2010) – that is, they create and reinforce the wine’s symbolic capital, and their representation on the bottle is felt to encourage the consumer’s willingness to pay premium prices (Parga-Dans and Gonzalez 2017). Pictures of chateaux and “Mediterranean” winery buildings work well everywhere in the world (Olin 2014; Jarvis et al. 2010), while Chinese buyers may be particularly attuned to chateau imagery, as they have learned to equate that with “Europe” and “class” (Smith Maguire 2010).

A further set of contradictions emerges when we consider how broader concerns dealing with lifestyle, health and the environment play out on the front and back of wine bottles. Increasingly marketers want to attract the attention of so-called “ethical consumers” interested in environmentally friendly wines which seem to have a “halo” of virtue around them (Rahman et al. 2014). But putting the word “organic,” for example, on a label is fraught. It may attract the eye of more politically liberal or leftist middle-class buyers. Yet “organic” means many different things to different types of social group, such as scientists, wine producers, State bureaucrats, and consumers. Government officials may understand the organic classification of a wine as only being about the quality and treatment of the soil where the grapes grew, while consumers may, without scientific warrant, impute health benefits to the wine thus labelled (Eden 2011). Marketers play on such ambiguities in nomenclature. They are helped by the fact that around the world there are hundreds of different programs certifying products as “organic,” all with different labels and logos (Delmas and Lessem 2017). This seems to cause great confusion from the point of view of consumers. This may be particularly so within the EU, where the PDO and PGI classification systems which define wines as being from particular regions are often misread by consumers as having something to do with quality or environmental standards, when in fact they do not (Ilbery et al. 2005).

Scope for confusion and manipulation therefore abounds in the wine world’s thick forest (or vineyard) of symbols. This is also seen in the politics surrounding the labelling of wine’s ingredients, with listing of both component elements and wine-making techniques becoming more common and more controversial. Parga-Dans and Gonzalez (2017) argue that the EU’s place-of-origin laws theoretically certify the provenance of wines and are meant to reassure consumers that what they are buying is “genuine” and therefore of good quality. But the rules actually erode consumer trust in the quality/origin connection. This is because the rules allow for distortion of information, and thus the market, by big industrial players, who want to hide both how they actually make wines and also what gets added to the wines in the production process. The current regulations discourage EU producers from volunteering information about production on labels, unlike in places like the USA, Argentina, and Australia, where this is becoming more common. Some national governments in the EU have responded to this by allowing producers to list ever more detail on labels, including grape varietal, vintage, subregion, the specific parcel(s) of land where the grapes grew, the chemical and geological aspects of the soil, and the minutiae of the wine-making process (precisely when and how the grapes were harvested; how, and in which vessels, fermentation was induced, etc.).

But lobby groups for the largest companies are not keen on all these revelations, especially those with implications for consumer health (e.g., indicating sugar levels), and they argue that labels are for marketing, and not health information, purposes (Sepeau Ivaldi 2017). They want instead to impose an absence of information, paradoxically in a broader context of the global(ized) information society characterized by myriad flows of information. Parga-Dans and Gonzalez (2017) argue that the lack of labelling demanded by big business and tolerated by the EU hurts smaller, higher quality producers, especially innovative ones producing “natural” wines. Such producers shun industrial practices, in favor of wine-making involving, for example, naturally occurring yeasts and fermentation, low-impact farming, and low or no sulfites added to the wine. Such producers are often excluded from national and EU classification systems, as they make wines that are defined as insufficiently “typical” of their region. EU regulations make it difficult or impossible for these producers to win new consumers, especially of the “hipster” type living in big cities, by listing the information that the latter may want or like. Such information might include grape varietal, hyper-specific area of origin, the minutiae of the wine-making process at a given harvest time, information about yeasts, malolactic bacteria, amount of added water, use of tartaric acid, and suchlike.

These forms of information may be given to prospective customers by wine critics, but this gives the latter an advantage over smaller producers who lack substantial advertising budgets. Both producers and consumers suffer in this warfare about how many, and which, words can go on the label. According to EU and other national laws, wine can have more than 50 legal ingredients and additives. Most labels only give basic allergen information, such as the presence of sulfites, but under the current set-up do not say how much sulfites are in the wine, which is unfortunate for allergy sufferers. Labelling in the EU also need not mention the use of “chaptalization” in the wine-making process, which involves adding sugar to poor quality grapes. While national laws in southern Europe have banned this method, it is allowed in more northerly territories like Germany. The absence of text on labels about such practices favors low-quality, large quantity-oriented northern European companies over their small-scale southern counterparts. This adds in a specific but meaningful way to the increasingly tense relations between different regions of the EU – another instance of wine politics intersecting with broader political dynamics. The textual absence is also potentially perilous to diabetics and allergy sufferers, who in an age of supposed information-overload, including in the wine world, still have very little clue about what they are really swallowing.


In this chapter we have examined the main contours of the interplay between language and wine. Wine could not work in the various ways it does in human life without the large range of languages and forms of talk that it currently is constituted through and by. Language and talk allow wine to be made, sold, tasted, enjoyed, reflected upon, poeticized, and polemicized about, and much else besides. All of this is characterized by conflict, contestation, contradiction, and paradox. Languages and the concerns they embody from outside the wine world enter it and come to have effects on how the wine/language interface works. It is through this means that the wine world is in large part connected and attached to wider forms of politics and social change. Conversely, once a specific vocabulary concerning wine has been established within the wine world, it may seep out into other domains and be taken up in them, coming to shape how people think and act in those realms. Other comestibles like beer, chocolate, cheese, and coffee are now spoken of, evaluated and tasted in light of words and associated ideas first pioneered in the apparently hermetic confines of the realm of wine tasting. The fact that many Developed World people, both consumers and producers, now think of these as artisanal goods rather than as industrial products, is testament to the power of wine languages to invest the world and particular objects with a special kind of significance. As wine vocabularies become both ever more specific and also more freighted with controversy, we may expect that such ways of speaking and thinking will come in future to have effects on many other domains of human experience. It is that point, about the seemingly limitless prodigiousness of wine talk and language, that may indeed be the most profound truth of which wine speaks today.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Social SciencesUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland

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