Burch Family Wines Blog

Language of Wine


"In order to speak about wine there must evidently be something to say, and there can be no vocabulary of tasting unless there are wines with numerous and complex qualities which are worthy of comment. In fact the birth of a taster's vocabulary dates from the advent of quality wine." - Emile Peynaud, The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation

How does one convey something as personal as a taste impression; not the chemical content of a substance, but the flavors and sensations that the taster is reminded of?

"It‟s easy to use a received language of wine and assume that it has universal meaning. It doesn‟t. The language of wine is, of necessity, highly metaphorical and hence puzzling: these are not plain words. That language needs constant reworking in order to keep meaning fresh. At the same time, a strenuous search for freshness can easily teeter over into the ridiculous, because of metaphorical overload. Every wine writer should be not just thinking about wine with passionate intensity, but about language too.

..unchallenged assumptions about wine are often wrong, or relate to a past wine world which no longer exists. It‟s important to take nothing for granted, to weigh everything in the scales of your own mouth." - Andrew Jefford, Wine Writer


Children have an inborn facility for language. Language links acoustically commutable signs to sense impressions. In the early stage, the words may correspond directly to impressions. At a later stage, this direct connection is lost in so far as some words convey relations to perceptions only if used in connection with other words. Then, word-groups rather than single words refer to perceptions. When language becomes partially independent from the background of impressions, a greater inner coherence is gained. Only at this further development, where frequent use is made of so-called abstract concepts, language becomes an instrument of reasoning in the true sense of the word. The mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language. Thinking and language are linked. Scientific language is international.

But your language conceals your thoughts rather than fully communicates them. The mind craves for formulations and definitions, always eager to try and squeeze reality into a verbal shape. Your personal universe does not exist by itself. It is merely a limited and distorted view of the real. It is not the universe that needs improving, but your way of looking. The structure of language is less fluid, less deeply intricate and multidimensional than the structure of actuality, so even the linguistic communication which is honest in intent is false in its final effect.

The connection between language, and experience and actuality, is purely symbolic and not a true correspondence. The way in which experiences are classified into finite words determines our ultimate response. Poetry is an attempt at putting into words an emotional experience that is, in essence wordless. The reality of your words imposes intellectual shortcomings.

People love compartmentalizing, or categorizing wines, people will go to a mountain and draw a triangle on a map. The description is not the described; I can describe the mountain, but the description is not the mountain, and if you are caught up in the description, as most people are, then you will never see the mountain.

The truth can only be asymptotically (logarithmically) approached with words, never actually reached, but the more we expand and develop our vocabulary the higher the probability of approaching truth. If every sensual experience had a precise corresponding word, then the truth could be expressed. This is one of the benefits of reading winemakers tasting notes, a way to develop your olfactory and gustatory vocabulary. As UK wine writer Andrew Jefford suggests in the above video it's useful to draw metaphors from the world around us to express wine. There simply are too few of words to describe all experiences. This limited number of words and/or vocabulary creates varying degrees of incongruence during expression, like a gigantic booming waterfall of thoughts, feelings, and sensations trying to emerge out of a tiny faucet.

"The limits of my language are the limits of my world." - Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951), Austrian-born English philosopher

“Language learning deserves special mention. It is, bar none, the best thing you can do to hone clear thinking.”- Timothy Ferriss, Author ‘the 4 hour work week’

Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts. Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concepts of a certain kind. A word transforms concepts into mental entities; definitions provide them with identity. Words without definitions are not language but inarticulate sounds. As human knowledge grows, the definitions of human concepts grow in complexity. The first words a child learns are words denoting visual objects and he retains his first concepts visually. A child's first drawings are a visual record of the process of abstraction and concept-formation in a mind's transition from the perceptual level to the full vocabulary of the conceptual level. Written language originated in the form of drawings — as pictographic writing. With the growth of human knowledge and power of abstraction, a pictorial representation of concepts could no longer be adequate to our conceptual range, and was replaced by a fully symbolic code.

Concepts cannot be formed at random. All concepts are mental integrations of two or more units. All concepts are formed by first differentiating two or more existents from other existents. All conceptual differentiations are made in terms of commensurable characteristics (i.e., characteristics possessing a common unit of measurement). Incommensurable characteristics cannot undergo integration into one unit. A given shape represents a certain category of geometrical measurements. Concepts are formed by observing similarities and differences.

Because words soak up emotional connotations and are possessed individually by the listener, you can't will yourself not to treat the word in terms of what it means. You can't hear a word and just hear it as raw sound. It evokes an associated meaning and emotion in the brain. Words therefore give you a little probe into other people's brains.

Your mind can frame a given sensation of wine in multiple ways. Two different people can or one person at different times can frame the same sensation differently. You can flip-flop depending upon how that the sensation is described or perceived. One frame is not necessarily truer than the other. The mind can use metaphors (resemblances) and combinatorics (connections) to understand otherwise inaccessible abstract concepts.

‘Aut Tace Aut Loquere Meliora Silentio’ (either be silent to say something better than silence) - Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), Italian Baroque painter, poet and printmaker.

'Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better.' - Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), Scottish satirical writer, essayist, historian

These above sayings express not only an appreciation of silence and contempt for idle chat, but points in particular to the philosophical status of silence. What is praised in other words is not the dull silence of someone who has nothing to say, but rather thoughtful, perceptive, creative, knowledgeable silence. For wine or art, the silence option has been important time and again ever since antiquity. Thus the pictorial eloquence of poetry was compared with the silent poetry of painting or winemaking with the intention of honoring different forms of expression and communication with a view to stressing their common, immanent power of persuasion.

What you don't feel, you will not grasp by art, unless it wells out of your soul. And with sheer pleasure takes control, compelling every listener's heart.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust p.448

The words and notions of conversational language become dead and empty when it comes to experience, conveying nothing to him who does not carry such knowledge within himself. In the same way as the sensation of a glass of Pinot Noir cannot be impartial to one who has not experienced it, and just as the difference of colors cannot be conveyed to one blind from birth and the wealth of auditory sensation cannot be communicated to the deaf. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly. The same too goes for the wine drinker. 

“Clear wine was once called a Saint; thick wine was called ‘a sage’. Of saint and sage I have long quaffed deep, what need for me to study spirits and Hsien? At the third cup I penetrate the Great Way; a full gallon – nature and I are one…but the things I feel when wine possesses my soul. I will never tell to those who are not drunk.” – Li Bai (701-762AD), Ancient Chinese poet.

Let not your language speak, for it is often used to conceal true thought. Let not your education speak, for it is too frequently used to evade truth. Let not that varnished, and veneered self, answer, for it is too often used to camouflage the true you. There is a silence behind wine as well as within it and it is only in this more secret, sustaining silence that we can hear clearly. In the noise of the world we hear only altered and disturbed echoes. The refuge of our purest thoughts is silence, and no one can refute wise silence, though one may be taxed for speech. 

Photo of wine: Marchand & Burch Mount Barrow Pinot Noir produced by two friends Burgundian winemaker and biodynamic ambassador Pascal Marchand and Jeff Burch, Vigneron and owner of Howard Park & MadFish Wines. Pascal Marchand is famous in wine circles for his performance taking over from Comte Armand in Pommard as winemaker at Burgundy's Premier Cru ‘Clos-des-Epeneaux’ and as ex-regisseur for Boisset's Domaine de la Vougeraie. Marchand & Burch are hand-crafted wines from carefully selected fruit parcels from vineyard sites in Margaret River and Great Southern wine regions of Western Australia and Burgundy’s Côte d'Or in France, including wines from several Grand Cru Appellations. Note all Marchand & Burch wines are very limited, in some cases only one barrel.

Picture below: Painting of ‘Harpocrates the Greek God of silence who holds his finger to his mouth’ by David w Burch

Article & Drawing: David W Burch | Date: 12/12/2011 | Category: Philosophy, Marchand & Burch

Category: Philosophy