On Wine and Gender: Chambertin = Masculine. But Why?

Above: Rob Halford of Judas Priest: hypermasculinity at its finest. And it’s so great that he’s gay.

This is the second in a three article series on Wine and Gender. Here is the first, on ‘feminine’ wines.

IF we are to believe wine tasting notes, men are by definition muscular, tobacco-smoking, leather-toting brutes that smell like earth.

Here’s a taste from Wine Spectator’s Dec 15, 1996 issue:

1949 Leroy Chambertin: 94 points.
Rich, deep and very complex, this offers layers of lovely black currant and earth character. “Masculine” in style, opposed to the “feminine” and near-perfect Musigny from this vintage. It’s also a bit leaner and shorter on the finish. Drink now through 2005. Leroy vertical. –PM

1949 Leroy Musigny: 98 points.
Ethereal scents, a lush and silky texture and intense flavors of ripe, rich, sweet fruit. Powerful and youthful, the plum, cherry and mineral character are incredibly balanced. At its pinnacle and perfect to drink now, but should last until 2000 at least. Leroy vertical. –PM

While these two tasting notes don’t leverage the entire family of gendered wine descriptors, they still drive the idea home: the balanced and silky character of the red-fruited Musigny earned the moniker feminine, and beat out the deep, earthy, dark-fruited, more obviously tannic and thus less silky, masculine Chambertin.

The character of the tannins is the discriminant here, as it is in most gendered wines.

It’s worth asking why. And Harry Harlow’s historic cloth and wire mother experiment may offer a clue.

Harry Harlow is a man tormented by baby monkeys in Hell.  Image courtesy Damian Gordon, ‘Wire and Terrycloth Mothers’, Jan. 2011. CC BY-SA 4.0.

This terrible experiment proved that the craving for soft texture outstripped even food:

“Given a choice between a wire mother that dispensed milk and a cloth mother with no milk, baby monkeys overwhelmingly preferred the cloth mothers. Monkeys living with their mothers thrived physically, while those deprived of maternal succor withered away and often died, like untouched children in orphanages.”1

This would suggest there is a biologically hard-wired equating of “supple” and “caressing” with mother, and by extension female.  If we are driven to characterize wines which are “supple”, “silky” and “caressing” as feminine, it may in part be due to this predilection.

But, getting back to masculine wine: any wine with coarse tannins not meeting these criteria is unceremoniously dumped into the masculine category.

In addition to coarse tannins governing whether a wine is perceived as masculine, there is also our curious penchant to attribute masculinity to a quite a few aromas: graphite/earth, tobacco, and leather/smoke.  These terms most often accompany tannic wines described as masculine, and one can’t help but wonder if these aromas aren’t somehow inextricably bound to tannins — perhaps even on a chemical level.

We’re going to examine two of these aromas: tobacco and leather (I would have loved to investigate the graphite/earth aroma, but simply finishing this three-article series in its current form required over six months).

Something to bear in mind: masculinity is a tenuous status, which must be proven again and again.  As many of the following activities remain intertwined with masculinity to this very day — and help men prove their manliness to themselves and hopefully others — it’s easy to decipher the cultural stereotypes.

MANLY AROMA #1 : TOBACCO

Circa 1958. The military tattoo was used for many years in Marlboro ads.

In every country around the world, men are the first to begin smoking, followed 10 to 20 years later by women.  Women are initially viewed as disrespectable if they smoke.  In the United States, when cigarettes were marketed to women in 1968 on the heels of the women’s liberation movement, Virginia Slims were targeted “to convince fashionable, modern, independent and self-confident women aged 20–34 that by smoking, they are making a better/more complete expression of their independence.”  As of 2010 in China, 61% of males smoked, and 4.2% of females did.2

In explaining how tobacco became gender-tagged, yet again, the history of perfume proves illuminating: “(During the Victorian era), when perfumes moved from the pharmacy to the cosmetics counter, their use was increasingly linked with the feminine, especially as Victorian-era notions about separate spheres for each gender took hold of Western society. While some scents, like tobacco and pine, remained connected to popular ideas of masculinity, the general concept of good smell was increasingly associated with the world of women.”3

That tobacco should be considered a masculine aroma is an iteration of “masculine is what masculine does”:  and Victorian smoking rooms would seem a fair starting point.

Tristan Bridges, Assistant Professor of Sociology, writes in his blog Inequality by (Interior) Design:

“Smoking rooms were intended to be used after dinner.  The women might gather in the drawing room and the men would retreat to the smoking room.  As such, it was common practice to decorate the room in a “masculine” style.  Many men displayed gun collections there, decorated the room with Turkish themes (as Turkish tobacco was what they were likely smoking, popularized after the Crimean War), ‘worldly’ books and objects, and more.”

So let’s test my assertions as they relate to wine. If, as I observe, A) tannic wines from highly tannic grapes are most often perceived as masculine, and if B) tobacco is viewed as a traditionally masculine aroma, then it shouldn’t surprise us if C) most wines showing tobacco aromas are the product of extremely tannic grapes. Leveraging CellarTracker’s database of tasting notes4 substantiates the notion. The following graph shows the largest clusters of notes containing the word “tobacco”, sorted by varietal.

But this is irredeemably tainted by sample bias: there are far more collectors leaving notes for Red Bordeaux blends and Pinot Noir on CellarTracker than there are for, say, Tannat. Correcting for sample bias, here’s what you get: wines described as showing “tobacco”, divided by number of notes for that variety available, to yield a percentage (click for a larger view):

And, lo and behold! We’re left with nothing but fiercely tannic grapes. Pinot Noir and Syrah drop out of the picture.  Who knew Uva di Troia (aka. Nero di Troia) would beat out Bordeaux blends, Sagrantino, and even Tannat — Tannat, the variety I would’ve bet the farm on! Nearly 9% of all CellarTracker tasting notes on Uva di Troia use the word tobacco.

MANLY AROMA #2 : LEATHER (AND ACTUALLY, SMOKE)

Just as with tobacco, the leather aroma is most often used to describe wines made from highly tannic grapes. First and foremost are red Bordeaux blends, but other popular citations include Syrah, Sangiovese, red Rhône blends, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Nebbiolo.

Leather itself is an exceedingly male-branded entity. In her raucous, scintillating essay “Masculine Elegance and What It Smells Like”, perfume critic Tania Sanchez notes: “Leathers, via their connection with aviator jackets, interiors of luxury cars, and saddlery, have an unbroken set of associations with luxuries involving remoteness, movement, and danger.” 5

You might suspect — as I did — that leather aromas in wine are traceable to a single family of compounds in wine. And, like me, you’d’ve thought wrong.

Leather aromas in wine are a mystery.  It is also mysterious that leather comes bundled with smoke, as these two tasting descriptors show a high correlation — and we’ll examine a hypothesis as to why below. 6

Ronald S. Jackson, one of the world’s preëminent wine chemistry experts, was generous enough to reply to my email query with an in-depth explanation of leather aromas in wine:

“No particular compound is currently known to specifically generate a leathery odor. It may in fact be the joint, qualitative attribute of a series of compounds. To add to the confusion, the term leather seems to be used in two distinct ways: one negative, usually in association with Brett odors; the other positive, in connection with the aged bouquet of red wines.

Ethyl phenols (produced by Brettanomyces) have typically been ascribed as possessing a wet leather aspect. Other researchers refer to ethyl phenols in association with a complex of compounds potentially associated with Brett off-odors, such as Band-aid, burnt plastic, smoky, phenolic, clove, wet animal, bready, barnyardy, horsy, horse sweat, medicinal, tobacco, and putrid.

Any association between a smoky attribute and leather is probably due to the correlation between these terms being used to describe the off-odor attributes of ethyl phenols. In addition, leathery might be a qualitative attribute of the new series of aromatics termed polysulfuranes 7, described as having flinty characters, which some people have associated with smoky.

I have suggested, as a hypothesis, that the leathery, aged, red wine bouquet attribute may be due to some transformation in its tannic composition or methoxypyrazines. The latter idea is only offered because leathery, as a positive attribute, has most commonly been used in reference to well-aged Bordeaux wines.”

Leather is inseparable throughout human history from tannins. Tannins derive their very name from their ability to bind proteins and “tan” leather. 8

So: wow, what a trio we have here; tobacco, leather, and smoke!

Marlon Brando, The Wild One, 1953.

And to think it may all just be tannins — or more precisely, different expressions of tannins over time.

***

But exactly when did gender creep into wine professionals’ tasting notes? Who was the first person to call a wine masculine or feminine?

All will be answered in the final article on Wine and Gender.

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  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/02/books/no-more-wire-mothers-ever.html?_r=0 []
  2. http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/89/3/10-079905/en/ []
  3. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/our-pungent-history/ []
  4. CellarTracker is the only multivariable search tool that would allow efficient sorting by varietal; however, I cross-referenced these conclusions with professional wine critics and found largely the same trends. []
  5. Perfumes: The Guide, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Viking Press. 2008. p24. []
  6. Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, Ronald S. Jackson, Elsevier, 2002, p157. []
  7. Which Starkenmann et al. 2016 found in the latest issue of J. Agric. Food Chem. []
  8. “Both flavonoid and nonflavonoid polymers, generically termed tannins, derive their name from their ability to tan leather.” Wine Science: Principles and Applications, Ronald S. Jackson, Elsevier, 3rd Edition, 2008, p.286 []

8 comments

  1. William Hughes says:

    You had me at Rob Halford!

    I am enjoying this series of articles. You’ve inspired me to go back over my own tasting notes to find my use of terms that may be gender influenced or indicators of gender.

    • Gargantua says:

      My intention is not to browbeat or shame anyone here, but instead to lift the veil on these invisible assumptions that have permeated our thoughts for so long without ever seeing the light of day or critical scrutiny.

  2. Robert Schneider says:

    One tiny quibble. Cigarettes were marketed to women for decades. In fact, filter cigarettes were first sold as a “feminine”
    alternative, since the filter kept the paper and tobacco flakes off of lipsticked lips. Marlboro, dating back to the 1920s, was originally positioned as a women’s brand. Repositioning the Marlboro brand as a “masculine” smoke (and the best-selling cigarette brand) in the 1950s is a legend in the annals of advertising and marketing.

    Sorry for using Wikipedia as the online info source. Others are mostly bogged down with pop-up ads. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlboro_(cigarette)

    • Gargantua says:

      Interesting. Check out the WHO research paper I linked to that served as my source. Will have to read this more closely later when I am free at home!

  3. Gargantua says:

    EDIT: A paragraph in Manly Aroma #1 initially read:

    “In the United States, cigarettes weren’t marketed to women until 1968. On the heels of the women’s liberation movement, Virginia Slims were targeted “to convince fashionable, modern, independent and self-confident women aged 20–34 that by smoking, they are making a better/more complete expression of their independence.”

    However, this is inaccurate. Marketing/targeting women as consumers existed at least as early as the late 19th century. Thank you for pointing this out, Robert Schneider!

    • Gargantua says:

      Amazing. Two visually compelling proofs. I must confess I am fascinated by the history of cigarette marketing. There’s something positively demonic about a baby insisting on a brand of cigarettes to his mother. Did you know that there is a similar origin story with Old Spice? originally for women, before being repurposed into one of the most enduring scents of our time.

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