Time to Retire “Feminine” and “Masculine” from your Tasting Note Vocabulary

  • Kevin 
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I was tasting in Montefalco, Umbria, recently, when I had a moment of clarity. It came while I was visiting the organic Di Filippo estate and tasting their Montefalco Sagrantino.

Di Filippo makes two low-intervention Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG wines, one with the classic maceration and wood regime and one, named Etnico, that uses a novel approach: 50% of the grapes are macerated for just 36 hours while the other 50% is macerated for the more traditional time. Both wines are truly lovely; Etnico offers somewhat more fruit and softer tannins, with a more easily-understood, approachable character, but with a bit less long-term potential. The other, more classic bottling has more tannin, more structure and more intensity – and shows potential for fantastic development.

“Some people say that Etnico is a more feminine wine”, observed Stefania, who was guiding both my tour of the estate and the tasting. I appreciated her formulation and suspected that it was a perspective she didn’t necessarily share.

I really don’t like the use of the words “feminine” or “masculine” in reference to the character of a wine. They beg defining, and the ensuing definitions inevitably rely on tired and inaccurate gender stereotypes. The words are imprecise at best, downright insulting at worst. As such, they have no place in a good tasting note. Actual definitions vary as much as the people using them, but, generally speaking

  • “Feminine” wines are softer, rounder and less powerful, sometimes with more aromatic character
  • “Masculine” wines are more angular, with more structure, intensity and, often, more ageing potential and/or overt wood character

The Trouble with Terminology

Describing how something tastes, smells and feels is difficult. Any attempt at description is going to rely primarily on comparisons to other, known things – or will dive into metaphor. Any writer worth more than a couple lines of prose will have a large enough vocabulary and diverse enough experience to fill at least a good half-page with text for a decent wine. So, seriously, I wonder why so many people resort to these two words as a shorthand, since all they symbolise are outdated gender-based stereotypes that are losing their relevance, if they ever had any. Is our collective vocabulary so impoverished?

Where do they get used?

Regions

Although sometimes applied to the left and right banks of Bordeaux, the classic regional comparisons for feminine and masculine wines remains Barbaresco and Barolo. The general consensus among people who use the terms is that Barolo is the more masculine wine. However, no less an expert than Ian d’Agata said at a recent tasting at Vinitaly that, when tasted blind, it is impossible to consistently identify whether a wine is Barbaresco or Barolo based on such thinking; rather, there are simply differences in style – and both styles are present in both of these famous denominations.

Styles

So perhaps applying these words to the style of a wine, instead of a region, is more accurate? I would say that it is not.

The essential problem of using such loosely-defined terminology is its very vagueness. Most of our wine descriptors are based either on comparisons to familiar tastes or on scales of intensity. When it is a scale of intensity, such as with sugar or with depth of colour, the underpinnings are usually quite clear and not open to much debate beyond subjective perception. Sweetness, bitterness, acidity, tannin…these and other qualities like them are characteristics of a wine that can be assessed reasonably objectively. There is no such scale of “feminine” and “masculine”, no archetype or ideal that is not very contentious.

By way of example, using “grapefruit” as a flavour descriptor is quite clear – provided you have ever tasted a grapefruit. At the very least, it is easy to discover what one is and how it smells and tastes. But using “feminine” as a reference point communicates different things to different people, raising the question of what it means to be “feminine”. Who can decide what it is? This is an important topic now, when our preconceptions about what it means to be “feminine” or “masculine” are being rightly challenged and abandoned at an increasing rate. As a result, using these terms as a kind of shorthand (as I suggested recently with minerality) is not particularly helpful: the words themselves are a moving target, and have long since outlived their usefulness. At its heart, I think it is intellectually lazy and risks needlessly alienating a significant part of your audience. Using them is off-putting to many, not using them is off-putting to nobody. Why even get into this minefield, when it is not difficult simply to say what the wine is about without such words?

But what if I want to use “Feminine” and “Masculine”?

But, let us say that there is some medieval stalwart who is convinced that our centuries-old preconceptions of masculinity and femininity should be just as valid today as they were in the past. Fine. Applying them to the two wines I mentioned above could be done, of course. But why not abandon the controversial elements of gender roles, the aspects that don’t apply to each gender as a whole. We would be better off focussing on those aspects of femininity and masculinity that are more universal.  

For me, the more feminine of the two was not Etnico, but the “classic” wine. Why? Because it has more power, and enormous potential – more, in fact, than Etnico, and that potential is more difficult to define.

For centuries – for thousands of years, in fact – men have been able to realise their potential. Philosophically, nothing has held them back, their abilities and challenges have been recognised, their accomplishments feted, their failures pitied. Generally, the potential of men is acknowledged, knowable – even predictable. Not so with women. Where men were encouraged, validated and promoted, women were discouraged, disregarded and held back. The potential of women is only starting to be realised; their limits are uncharted, their complexity unplumbed and their future both wide open and mysterious. This is why the top wine is undeniably the more feminine. It has massive potential that is difficult to pigeonhole. It has more complexity, depth and a longer future. Etnico, while a great wine and a pleasure to drink, is more of a known quantity. A bit easier to understand, a bit less surprising; the winemaking has put this wild and challenging grape into a more approachable, more easily identifiable place. If one of these wines “must” be feminine, then it is not Etnico.

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