John Mini M.S.C.M./L.Ac./Dipl.Ac.
A Formidable Challenge
Creating a comparable vocabulary between cultures and languages for wine tasting is a formidable challenge due to the technicalities not only of translation, but more fundamentally because of the differences in actual experience between cultures and the extreme precision of these terms. Shared experience often becomes increasingly fuzzy with specificity. This is particularly the case when two groups of people from completely different genetic, cultural and neurological backgrounds attempt to meet on the equally complex common ground of wine.
The shared experience of wine tasting between cultures thus becomes a platform for a very intensive exercise in communication precisely because it’s so difficult. Every culture has its own unique culinary vocabulary that is ideally suited to its own experience. Each culture holds the task, then, to assist other cultures to tune their perceptions to new experiences and develop a working vocabulary to describe what has been shared. Happily, this is a process that can only be worked out together over time.
Translating Wine Concepts
A recent WSJ article described the attempts of Chinese wine enthusiasts who are trying to translate Euro-American wine vocabulary as a negative thing because those on the Chinese side have been unable to reach agreement on these terms to date. What the author of this article doesn’t understand is that this contentious dialogue is the root of the dynamism of Chinese culture and has little if anything to do with wine. It’s just part of the territory of being and speaking Chinese.
With the understanding that whatever I efforts I make in this direction will likely create a similar effect to throwing a pack of firecrackers into a munitions factory, the following are my observations in the arena of taste and flavor:
Astringent- 涩, Se. Also has connotations of roughness as in unsmooth, puckerish, obscurity and being difficult to understand.
Bitter- 苦, Ku. Also has connotations of painful, miserable, agonizing, harsh, grim, spiteful and vindictive as in English.
Savory- 薩沃. This is Sa Wo, a very right-now translation that has nothing to do with a Chinese concept. It’s just a Chinese phonetic of the word ‘sour’ or maybe ‘savory’ in English. I think a much better translation is 不甜, Bu Tian, which means ‘not sweet’, although this is a big stretch for Chinese people because they taste sweet in almost everything, and if it’s not there, they’ll add sugar to make it right.
Two ways to counter the effect above would be to call savory 沒有 甜, Mei You Tian, but this often causes a Chinese person default to other tastes rather than sit with the absence of sweet. One way to counter this effect would be to use the highly philosophical term 無, Wu, which means void/nothingness, in combination with sweet to create 無 甜, Wu Tian, or void sweetness. This word trickery creates a kind of kinesthetic koan for a Chinese person that conveys our foreign intention quite well, but may leave her/him in an existential space that exceeds our purposes in the moment.
Color- 顏色, Yan Se. This is very straightforward. Until you start describing specific colors.
Ageabilty- 可变老, Ke Bian Lao. This is my translation, I think it can work pretty well. Another possibility would be to use 可長壽, Ke Chang Shou, which would mean it has the ability to have longevity. The former term could easily be confused to mean that the wine would make one old, and the latter that the wine would promote longevity, so immediate further explanation and dialogue would be a requirement in this situation.
Acidity- 酸度, Suan Du. ‘Degrees of Sour.” Carries connotations of jealousy, sorrow and misfortune.
Finish- 回味, Hui Wei. I like this term in Chinese much better than English, because it means “ Return/Full Circle/Come Back/Answer Taste”
Minerality (stony)- 礦化度, Huang Hua Du. “Degrees of Mineralization”, also just plain 石, Shi, or 石味, Shi Wei, Stone Taste, might be best.
Salty- 咸, Xian. Very straight forward.
Sour- This is always going to be 酸, Suan, the same word for acidity and vinegar.
Rich- 浓厚, Neng Hou. Concentrated/Heavy/Rich-Thick/Rich in Flavor. Also can just say 厚, Hou.
Full body- 滿, Man. Pretty straightforward. You could play a lot between this and the one just above.
Color Intensity- 顏色強度, Yen Se Chang Du. Color-Strength-Degree.
Flavors: 味道, Wei Dao. Also means smell. 氣息, Qi Xi, is also interesting, because it means flavor/breath/smell, but it’s made of Energy-Interest. I also like 氣味, Qi Wei, because it means odor/smell/taste and is made of Energy-Flavor. I would categorize/describe these three terms as:
味道, Wei Dao- the entire path that a flavor takes through the atmosphere and your senses.
氣息, Qi Xi- the captivating, alluring and interesting quality of a flavor.
氣味, Qi Wei- The entire field of a flavor contiguous with its smell.
On Specific Tastes
Citrus- 柑橘, Gen Ju. Most often applied to oranges.
Lemon- 檸檬, Ning Mung.
Lime- 酸橙, Suan Chen, Sour Orange. This is the same Suan that I talked about above that means vinegar, etc.
Orange (and orange blossom) 橙, Chen. This is often associated with orange peel and its associated volatilities.
We must also include here 佛手, Fou Sho, Buddha Hand Citron, a cultural favorite and bearer of good luck.
Blackberry- 黑莓, Hei Mei. Pretty common and should work well.
Blueberry- 藍莓, Lan Mei. Not so common in Chinese experience.
I would also definitely include the flavor of mulberry wherever applicable, as mulberry is a fundamental of Chinese culture:
Mulberry- 桑, Sang.
Cherry- 櫻桃, Yin Tao.
Lavender- 薰衣草, Xun Yi Cao. Fragrance-Clothes-Weed.
Violet- 菫菜, Qin Cai. Viola Herb.
Anise- 茴香, Hui Xiang. Star Anise is 八角, Ba Jiao.
Pear- 梨, Li. This is another flavor that I would refer to a lot because it’s so important to Chinese culture.
Apple- 蘋果, Pin Guo. Also very accessible.
Buttery- 黃油狀的, Huang You Jiang De. “Of the Yellow Oil Shape”
Creamy- 奶油, Nai You. “Milk Oil”
Both butter and cream are foreign to the Chinese diet, which is why they’re described as oils.
I would also include the following very typical elements of the Chinese palate, as each of them can easily be applied in wine descriptions when conversing with Chinese wine consumers:
Lycium- 枸杞, Gou Ji.
Lichee- 荔枝, Li Zhi.
Long Gan- 龍眼, Long Yen.
Schizandra Berry- 五味子, Wu Wei Zi.
Dang Gui- 當歸.
Polygonatum- 黃精, Huang Jing.
Ginseng- 參, Shen.
American Ginseng- 西洋參, Xi Yang Shen.
Reishi- 靈芝, Ling Zhi.
Cinnamon- 肉桂, Rou Gui.
Ginger- 姜, Jiang. This is super important to point out if you find it in a wine. Chinese wine tasters will.
Schizonepetae- 荊芥, Jing Jie.
Mint- 薄荷, Bo He.
Perilla Leaf- 紫蘇葉, Zi Su Ye.
Folium Mori (Mulberry leaf)- 森葉, Sang Ye.
Urine- 尿, Niao.
Watermelon- 西瓜, Xi Gua.
Watermelon Rind- 西瓜皮, Xi Gua Pi.
Coptis- 黃連, Huang Lian. This taste defines bitter.
Gentain- 龍膽, Long Dan. This is another taste that defines bitter.
Rehmanniae- 生地黃, Shen Di Huang.
Moutan- 牡丹皮, Mu Dan Pi.
Honeysuckle- 金銀花, Jin Yin Hua.
Dandelion- 蒲公英, Pu Gong Yin.
Chrysanthemum- 菊花, Ju Hua.
Houttuyniae- 魚腥草, Yu Xing Cao.
Red Bean- 赤豆, Chi Dou.
Lotus Leaf- 荷葉, He Ye.
Artemesia- 蒿, Hao.
Angelica- 獨活, Du Huo.
Pine- 松, Song.
Mahogany- 桃花心木, Tao Hua Xin Mu.
Snake- 蛇, She.
Black Pepper- 胡椒, Hu Jiao.
Patchouli- 廣藿香, Guang Huo Xiang.
Acanthopanacis- 五加皮, Wu Jia Pi.
Amomi- 砂仁, Sha Ren.
Evodiae- 吳茱萸, Wu Zhu Yu.
Asari- 細辛, Xi Xin.
Radix Aucklandiae- 木香, Mu Xiang.
Crataegus- 山楂, Shan Zha.
Sandalwood- 檀香, Tan Xiang.
Notoginseng- 三七, San Qi.
Almond Kernel- 杏仁, Xing Ren.
Musk- 麝香, She Xiang.
Moth Balls- 冰片, Bing Pian.
Codonopsis- 黨參, Dang Shen.
Astragalus- 黃芪, Huang Qi.
Malt- 飴糖, Yi Tang.
Black Sesame- 黑芝麻, Hei Zhi Ma.
Nutmeg- 肉荳蔻, Rou Dou Ko.
Mold- 發霉, Fa Mei.
Seaweed- 海草, Hai Cao.
Clam- 蛤, Ha.
Dirt- 泥土, Ni Tu.
And don’t forget the entire world of tea-related terms, beginning with:
Green Tea- 綠茶, Lu Cha.
Black Tea- 紅茶, Hong Cha.
There are literally thousands of varietals of high-quality teas that are accompanied by their own tasting procedures, nomenclature and trade culture that is at least and old and rich as the tradition of wine in Europe. Anyone who is serious about cultivating an authentic relationship with the Chinese wine market will want to become absolutely fluent with these terms and customs.
This is my offering for the time being. I hope it serves to further your interests.
John Mini M.S.C.M./L.Ac./Dipl.Ac.