On Wine and Gender: A Critical History

Heidi Klum as both Sophia Loren & Jayne Mansfield. Mark Seliger, 2002.

This is the third and final article on Wine and Gender. The first, on femininity and wine, is here. The second, on masculinity and wine, is here.

WHEN in history did we begin calling wines masculine or feminine?

Prior to wine magazines and the modern tasting note, there was no regularly printed forum dedicated to the aromatic virtues of a wine. However, history still holds several texts that speak critically of specific wines, grapes, and regions — primordial tasting notes, if you will.

From the 1st century to the 20th, often in keeping with Galenic medicine, these texts speak most often of healthfulness (conflating it with goodness or quality). They gauge a wine’s roughness, its color, and they are obsessed with ageworthiness. But there is no trace of gender.

Here’s a typical note from Pliny the Elder’s 1st century AD Natural History: “The people of Dyrrhachium hold in high esteem the vine known as the “basilica,” the same which in Spain is called the “cocolobis.” (…) The sweeter the cocolobis is, the more it is valued; but even if it has a rough taste, the wine will become sweet by keeping, while, on the other hand, that which was sweet at first, will acquire a certain roughness; it is in this last state that the wine is thought to rival that of Alba. It is said that the juice of this grape is remarkably efficacious when drunk as a specific for diseases of the bladder.”

Fast forward to a 1785 source, Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne, searching for traces of wine and gender, and very little has changed. The French author, Claude Arnoux, is sourcing French wine for English royalty. Behold as Arnoux sees no need to characterize Chambertin as masculine, nor Volnay or Savigny as feminine (what follows is my translation):

“(Volnay) produces the finest, most vivaceous, and most delicate wine of Burgundy” 1Arnoux, Claude (1695-1770). Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne, sur les vins qu’elle produit, sur la manière de cultiver les vignes, de faire le vin et de l’éprouver P. Du Noyer (London) 1728, p36. Visible here: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k10250980/f40.image.. (Pommard) produces a wine with a bit more body than (Volnay), it is the color of fire and has a great deal of perfume and balm 2baûme, literally ‘odiferous resin’., and lasts months longer than Volnay; it is more commonly sold and is better for one’s health; if you keep it longer than one year it becomes oily, fatigues, and turns the color of an onion skin. 3idem, p37-38.

“Savigny … produces velvety, sweet wines with body and delicacy. Once bottled, one must check in on them from time to time, for fear of missing the time at which they wish to be drunk. These wines would also be good for England, they last as long or longer than Chassagne; they are not as delicate nor as lively as Chassagne, but more unctuous, and very good for one’s health.” 4idem, p41.

“Chambertin is to my mind the greatest wine of all Burgundy: (…) it contains the qualities of all other wines therein without the faults. Here is the wine that one can forget in their cellar without fear; I’ve drunk them six years after the year they were produced, a wine which pours murky and thick into a glass, which then clears up before our very eyes, and which, by the movement of its spirits, suddenly takes on a most vivid and clean color; it is twice as expensive as any other Burgundy wine.” 5idem, p43.

IT IS 135 years later, in 1920, that we witness the first allusion to gender in wine which I can locate. Unsurprisingly, it was the product of the Victorian era.  A distinguished English critic of French literature — George Saintsbury — must have swallowed something whole from his contact with French culture.

George Saintsbury, photographed by James Lafayette, ca. 1910.

George Saintsbury, in his Notes on a Cellar-Book, dubbed an 1846 Hermitage (tasted in 1886) as “the manliest wine I ever drank”: “Now most red wines, if not all with the exception of Port, are either past their best, or have no best to come to, at that age. (…) But my Hermitage showed nor the slightest mark or presage of enfeeblement. It was, no doubt, (…) not a delicate wine; if you want delicacy, you don’t go to the Rhone or anywhere in France below Gascony. But it was the manliest French wine I ever drank; and age had softened and polished all that might have been rough in the manliness of its youth. (…) The bouquet was rather like that of the less sweet wall-flower.” 6Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury, Edited and Annotated by Thomas Pinney, UC Press, 2008, pp. 46-48

With his Cellar-Book, Saintsbury inaugurated a “poetic” style of wine criticism, which sought to capture wine experience by ‘not so much (…) describing individual wines but (…) evoking their characteristics and their effects on the drinker – especially by way of literary allusion’ 7Shapin, Steven. Tastes of Wine, in Rivista di estetica, wineworld. new essays on wine, taste, philosophy and aesthetics, edited by Nicola Perullo,  51 (3/2012), anon LII, pp. 70-71..

Following in his stylistic tradition, a number of primordial wine critics (Saintsbury’s greatest fan André Simon, also Alexis Lichine, A.J. Liebling, Michael Broadbent, and to a certain extent Frank Schoonmaker) ran with this fanciful French descriptive tradition, and injected it into the Anglo-American critical world 8idem, p73..  The 1920’s and 30’s were later dubbed by Michael Broadbent as “the hey-day of the fancy poetic style of evoking wine tastes” 9idem, p72..

However, with each decade following the 1930’s, a further proliferation of gendered descriptors seemed to invade wine discourse.

That’s right, Schoonmaker is the reason we label wines by their varietal in the USA.

Citing Saintsbury’s manly Hermitage reference 10Schoonmaker, Frank. Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, Hastings House, 1965. Fourth Printing, April 1967, p167. in his Encyclopedia forty years later in 1964, primordial modern wine critic Frank Schoonmaker continues speaking in gender in the context of first and second growth Bordeaux (Mouton Rothschild, Latour): “[Mouton Rothschild] has been called, along with Latour, the ‘manliest’ of the red Bordeaux, and it is a fine wine by any standard.” 11idem, p226., and Chambertin and Musigny: “Lighter and sometimes called ‘more feminine’ than Chambertin, [Musigny] belongs in the same noble and incomparable class” 12idem, p230..

Clearly, Schoonmaker absorbed this language while reading Saintsbury and while traveling in France, rather than originating it spontaneously. Proof? In each instance, he distances himself from the assertion via passive voice, noting a wine “has been called” masculine or feminine.

If we consider these earliest examples of gender being used to describe wine, it’s worth noting that it was only the paragons of wine experience (First Growth and what should be First Growth Bordeaux; Hermitage; Musigny, Chambertin) that compelled wine writers to invoke gender.

Over the next decade, the practice of attributing gender to wine became so commonplace that in 1976,  “… œnologist Maynard Amerine and his colleague (…) Edward Roessler publish(ed) a manual for the “sensory evaluation” of wines which sought to replace existing vague, fanciful, and emotive terminologies that one should “avoid at all costs” (e.g., wines that were “masculine” or “feminine”)”. 13Shapin, Steven. Tastes of Wine, in Rivista di estetica, wineworld. new essays on wine, taste, philosophy and aesthetics, edited by Nicola Perullo,  51 (3/2012), anon LII, p81.

BUT it is Emile Peynaud’s seminal textbook Le Goût du Vin (1980) which formalizes gendered terms in an academic context for the first time. Note the “feminine/masculine” axis in Peynaud’s reworking of Vedel’s triangle 14Purported to depict the balance between acidity, astringency and sweetness: Vedel, A. et al. 1972. Essai sur la dégustation des vins. Macon: Société d’édition et d’informations viti-vinicoles. below, neatly contiguous with my thesis regarding tannins as the preëminent predictor for masculine wine:

Even if Peynaud “vigorously advocated an analytic tasting language” 15Shapin, p82., and scorned fanciful wine metaphor outside of the most extreme cases 16Peynaud, Emile. Le goût du vin: Le grand livre de la dégustation, Dunod, 1980. p182., he persisted in the French tradition of dichotomizing wines via gender.


And yet, one cannot help but ponder the question: is there a possibility of something smelling inherently feminine or masculine?

When science set out to identify the “true scent of a woman”, what did it find? “Scientists attempted to capture the smell of four women on controlled diets by placing hollow globes on the subjects’ lower abdomens, [and] upon close analysis, the aroma was judged to lay somewhere between lotus flower and cotton blossom.” 17Reinarz, Jonathan. Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (Studies in Sensory History), University of Illinois Press; 2014, p116..

Evidently, sweat and body odor didn’t figure into that “true scent”. A Swiss study concluded that women’s body odor smells like onions or grapefruit, and men smell like stinky cheese — this difference was attributed by authors to a sulphur-containing compound detected in women’s sweat that was present in 10 times greater concentration. 18Troccaz et al. Gender-Specific Differences between the Concentrations of Nonvolatile (R)/(S)-3-Methyl-3-Sulfanylhexan-1-Ol and (R)/(S)-3-Hydroxy-3-Methyl-Hexanoic Acid Odor Precursors in Axillary Secretions; Chem. Senses (2009) 34 (3): 203-210. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjn076 First published online: January 15, 2009. https://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/34/3/203.full Science can take us this far, at least.

Perfume writers offer compelling opinions without empirical evidence: “We know that the odour of vanilla – almost universally beloved – is very close to that of a milky breast. We know that sandalwood smells very close to testosterone (which makes it a little odd that men should like it much more than women do). We know that the Guerlains believed that civet (now illegal, sadly for us but happily for the civet cat) was the profound, true scent of a woman. I’d not agree. I’d classify women’s own natural scent into four: musk women, civet women, ambergris women and castoreum women. I’ll not explain why here in a family newspaper.” 19https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/scents-and-sensibility-the-history-of-perfume-2066108.html. My best guess is that this circumscribes vagina, anus, armpits, and scalp.

Can something smell masculine or feminine? I think the answer is clearly yes, it can; but the judgment is wholly dependent on whichever mercurial, generational categories one has in mind whilst judging — all of which are ultimately arbitrary.

We’d probably do best to excise gender from our tasting notes, and just let the adjectives which drove us to that shorthand conclusion speak for themselves — just as authors from the first twenty centuries of wine writing did.

Because like it or not, someone’s bearing the brunt of this limiting narrative, and after all, it’s one that’s so very painlessly eradicated. Women don’t have a monopoly on balance or suppleness, just as men don’t have one on musculature or roughness; pretending otherwise does us all a disservice by casting us for roles we never expressed interest in playing.