On Wine and Gender: Chambolle = Feminine. But Why?

 

Marlene Dietrich has a question for you.

CAN there be something masculine or feminine in a wine?

It’s a conceit that has haunted professional wine tasting notes for decades. But once you ponder the notion, it’s quite odd.

And recently, some in the trade are casting a worrisome glance back at the tired dichotomies used to hastily differentiate wines.

Consider this quote from a recent Wine Enthusiast article about female winemakers:

“When at its best, wine tends to express feminine qualities, like sexy textures, soft tannins, voluptuous fruit and delicate floral aromas.”

Dujac winemaker Jeremy Seysses adopts a similar paradigm in describing how to tell a Clos de la Roche from a Clos Saint Denis:

“‘Aromatically, they are both unmistakably Morey-Saint-Denis.’ Jeremy began. ‘That is, there are suggestions of nutmeg and cinnamon to go with the cherry-raspberry-strawberry. But texturally, they are quite different. Clos de la Roche (…) has more structure, more tannin, and is generally more masculine. There is a minerally graphite aspect I don’t find in Clos Saint-Denis.’

‘In the Clos Saint-Denis (…) the silky tannins are first and foremost. There is intensity without weight. Texturally there are similarities with Chambolle, but in character our Clos Saint-Denis is quite different. There are aromatic fireworks to be found and a peacock’s tail as the wine opens out in the mouth that I find most appealing.’”

Let’s dissect this statement.

Quite obviously, tannins are the critical difference for Seysses. So many gender stereotypes hinge on physical musculature and mass; delicacy must equal femininity, and muscular structure (read: body, higher alcohol content) must equal masculinity.

Seysses regards ‘intensity without weight’ as feminine.  ‘Silky’ texture suddenly comes into play with feminine wine; supple, caressing mouthfeels — devoid of coarse tannin — engender femininity.

These two stereotypes underpin the bulk of our attributions of gender to wine. But take an even closer look, and something much stranger lies lurking: a precise set of gendered aromas.

Which aromas are regarded as masculine? Graphite. Tobacco. Leather. Earth. “Dark fruits”.

Which are feminine? Flowers. “Red fruits”.

This ultimately speaks more of us than the liquids we ingest. Nevertheless, it’s edifying to scour the history of wine, seeking to pinpoint precisely when this curious shorthand notion emerged, and uncover how certain aromas are pegged to a gender.

This series of three articles on Wine and Gender will examine how we delineate wines into masculine and feminine categories, and will conclude with a history of wine critics’ usage of the convention.

* * *

Let’s momentarily set aside the key consideration of a wine’s texture or ‘silkiness’ (more on that when we turn to masculine wine).  Instead, let’s explore the single strongest aromatic correlation of all time: that of females and flowers.

I’m a female stereotype, and I need a steady diet of roses, diamonds, and facials to survive!

A LIVING INCARNATION OF THE SHRINKING VIOLET?

Any number of wines convey floral aromas to tasters. According to conventional wisdom, these wines are feminine, simply because “feminine = floral”. Yet there is ultimately no intrinsic reason for us to adhere to this notion.

Let’s substantiate this with data. CellarTracker democratized wine criticism in 2003 by allowing any user to post tasting notes while managing their wine cellars.  It offers the most pertinent data set to popular opinion, neatly decentralized from professional wine criticism, in an extremely searchable interface.

If we query CellarTracker’s massive repository of 5 million tasting notes, here’s what we come up with: if, in their tasting note, a CellarTracker taster uses the word “floral”, they are 4.1 times more likely to also characterize their wine as “feminine” than “masculine”. Something’s afoot.

Why?

The deep dive into flowers and femininity is incredible. And more than anything else, it’s the history of perfume — not wine — that explains how we got here.

First, let’s acknowledge a primordial link. Kate Millett’s historic 1970 doctoral dissertation turned bestseller, Sexual Politics, rightfully cites an ancient link between flowers and women: upon seeing women give birth, prehistoric humans most likely understood it as the exact same growth process as grasses, trees, and, well … flowers. 1 Plant life is, after all, the most conspicuous example of growth and transformation.

But it’s much later in history that women become inseparable from flowers. Some of the most widely disseminated affiliations of flowers and females in wine-producing cultures were popular representations of the Virgin Mary. And Jonathan Reinarz’s fascinating Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell marshals compelling evidence that with the Virgin Mary, the flower becomes both virginity and cleanliness incarnate. ‘Sweet, often floral, sensory epithets used to describe the Virgin Mary (…) firmly underscored her exalted place in heaven.’

On the surface, this is a positive attribution, rooted in cleanliness and purity, in virtue, and even socioeconomic status.

Flowers are, after all, the living opposite of so many undesirable elements: of filth and decay, of the poor inhabitants of filthy streets, or most often, of the alleged putrid aromas of prostitutes.  ‘Society must find a way to code for hygiene’, one might infer. Yes, but it soon becomes clear that this is a more insidious means of cultural processing and control: Reinarz notes that ‘Occasionally such symbolism extended to mothers and cleaning ladies, “wielding brushes and pails,” who were variously praised as “unambiguously virtuous,” their abilities to achieve “pure households” implying “moral strenuousness.”’ 2.

But nature thumbs her nose at such oversimplified human categories.  And believe it or not, flowers can suddenly become taboo if their smells are evocative of musk (read: private parts, and thus sexuality). Indeed: the Virgin Mary’s desirable faint, clean, ‘virtuous’ floral aroma is contrasted with stronger, musky floral odors: ‘(By) the middle of the nineteenth century (…) bourgeois women were more often “counselled to avoid musk, civet, tuberose and other intoxicating fragrances too closely associated with the odor di femina of prostitutes and other women of easy virtue.”’ 3

Suddenly, an interesting dichotomy is at play: women either smell faintly of virtuous flowers, or heavily of transgressive ones, which — in essence — risk stealing men’s free will via their seductive power.

Finally, ushering in the modern era, “by the late nineteenth century, floral scents were almost exclusively regarded as feminine fragrances, while sharper scents were characterized as masculine.” 4.

But it gets even better. A century later, in 2002, researchers asked men to convey their impressions of a woman based strictly on a perfume.

The results proved that the clean floral aroma of ‘classic femininity’ — that had been enforced for centuries! — was now dismissed as the scent of vapid women, out of touch with the times, ill-prepared for the pressures of the modern workplace.

Not only are women who wear floral perfumes to job interviews less likely to be hired than those who wear non-floral perfumes 5, but, we can even ascertain why thanks to another fascinating 1992 study.

‘Floral scents gave the impression that the wearer was less likely than the oriental and chypre fragrance wearers to be impulsive, aggressive, assertive, dynamic, confident, sophisticated, and outgoing, but more likely to be timid.” 6

A living incarnation of the shrinking violet?

* * *

So, as early as 1992, the Virgin Mary was unfit for the workplace; the archetypal floral female had jumped the shark.  During the last century, our cultures have begrudgingly embraced a more fulsome notion of femininity. And yet, among wine aficionados, these stereotypes — that ‘silky’, ‘elegant’, or ‘floral’ wines must be feminine — endure like some insidious vestigial remnant.

CellarTracker tasters are 1.68 times more likely to qualify a Chambolle Musigny as “floral” than a Chambertin.  Not quite twice as likely, but not too far off.  Sure enough,  the single most stereotypically benchmark feminine wine is qualified as “floral” far more often than the most stereotypically masculine.

Perhaps our wine language can catch up to what our noses have already figured out?  Floral is floral; there’s no need to invoke a needlessly narrow, outdated notion of femininity via our descriptions when tasting.  Let’s never put limits on what feminine can be.

Structured, tannic women. Who can do whatever they want with their femininity.

In the next article of this three-part series, we’ll examine the notion of masculinity in wine.

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  1. Sexual Politics, Ballantine Books, 1978. p37-38 []
  2. Past Scents, p 114. []
  3. Past Scents, p 119. []
  4. Past Scents, p 134 []
  5. The influence of gender-stereotyped perfumes on leadership attribution, Sabine Sczesny and Dagmar Stahlberg, European Journal of Social Psychology 32, 815–828 (2002), Published online 15 July 2002 in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.123, visible at: http://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2013/11/The-Influence-of-Gender-Stereotyped-Perfumes-on-Leadership-Attribution.pdf []
  6. Effects of Composition on Olfactory Cues on Impressions of Personality, Fiore, A. M., Social Behavior and Personality, 20(3), p156: my italics for emphasis. Further clarification: ‘The fragrance industry classifies fragrances into (…) families based upon overall composition of ingredients. For example oriental [NB: Not my choice of terms: this is industry jargon.] fragrances are heavy with a preponderance of animal (musk type) ingredients with the addition of spice, resin, or wood ingredients. Chypre fragrances have a foundation of oakmoss combined with citrus and sandalwood. Floral scents are composed primarily of floral ingredients’. (sic, p.153) []

4 comments

  1. Z says:

    Hello Gargantuan,

    I am an avid reader from Singapore who occasionally delve in similar discussions with my wine companions.
    I have a few things to highlight now that you are back on the wagon.

    You got to be more disciplined in posting because I miss reading them. I jest. I know how difficult it can be to maintain a blog. Happy to know that you’re back.

    I was looking through my notes in Vivino. True enough, there were some indications of ‘feminine’, but those were made during the nascent stages of my wine journey where I took reference from other critics. Since then, words like Elegant, Pure, Soft, Velvety have replaced Feminine.

    I agree that most professional tasting notes can be more gender-neutral. There’s no need to charge the notes with a gender connotation, even if it’s made by the sisters of Mugneret-Gibourg. That said, tastings notes are often made with references to one’s associative memory. The ‘femininity’ in wine notes are not derogatory, but merely an indication of the subjective observation gleaned from the liquid, pertaining to the wine only. The glass ceilings and inequality need not be brought into the fray.

    For example, I like how the soft tannins of a Chambolle caress my tongue. As aforementioned about associative memories, a soft caress reminds me of a lady’s touch, like a mother’s care of a child. Conversely, the harsh tannins of a young cabernet could be described as grippy or astringent, (note that I didn’t use masculine), or I could evocatively charge it by saying: akin to the grip of a big burly man.

    In my opinion, that’s the craft of wine critics; like a playwright or political writer, they need to word their ideas to impress upon minds. Can you can imagine how boring a wine tasting note would sound like if it was factually presented like an academic report?

    I would love to hear your thoughts!

    Cheers
    Z

    • Gargantua says:

      Response

      Zhili, thanks for your kind and articulate words! I can’t express how happy it makes me to know there are thoughtful readers on the other side of the world. First, let me remind everyone that my intention here is not to browbeat, but instead to expose the cages that we are unknowingly invoking when we qualify a delicate wine as “feminine” or “masculine”. Women don’t need to be delicate, just let like men don’t need to be muscular. These cages limit us both, on either side of the gender divide. I understand you intend no harm–very few folks do in borrowing this tired dichotomy!–but regardless of one’s intentions, the net effect is a limiting assumption that further permeates our collective ways of seeing the world. Serious stuff, I think.

      I’m very sensitive to your comment about wine tasting notes being, say, stripped down to a graph of analytical levels. As a matter of fact I wrote at great length about the need for descriptive language in the face of so many naysayers of the very value of tasting notes and descriptive language. See here: http://wp.me/s4PVLG-199

      But here’s the thing: we can have all the descriptive language we want, without invoking these cages. It’s really simple. Where you would say feminine, say instead the words that drove you to that conclusion (balanced, supple, caressing). And vice versa for masculine.

      It’s that easy.

      • Z says:

        Hello G,

        How could I have missed that article out. Your critique of the criticisms is well-founded and I agree with most of the points you brought up. Wine criticism has its relevance and is not mere farce in the light of all bashing. Wine however, is very much like Art, which you correctly pointed out. Like movies, paintings and poems, the enjoyment of these are bound only by our own imagination.

        But like all things in Art, I think words often fail to capture the full picture. Herein lies the innate dilemma of semantics. The more we try to describe something, the more we realise how much it lacks in depicting the object.
        Critics deserve a place in helping us avoid plonk, but more so for the effort they spend on researching terroir and vinification to better explain why a wine taste the way it is.

        p.s: I love my bourgognes and village burgs too!

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