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Drinking Out Loud

The Most Underused Words in Wine

Which words would you like to see more often? Or less?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer asks for your most underused—and overused—wine descriptors.

Matt Kramer
Posted: March 7, 2017

It’s impossible for anyone who writes, professionally or otherwise, to not feel strongly about words. Blind tastings are one thing. But could anything be less inviting than a mute tasting, with everyone shuffling in and out as silently as Trappist monks?

With wine, words are disproportionately powerful, as otherwise our respective experiences of taste would forever be isolated and soundless. Strange as it sounds, we really don’t know what a wine tastes like until we put words to it.

All of which brings me to the idea of underused words in wine today. As someone who for decades has recommended wines to readers, I know all too well which words will resonate. You can never go wrong portraying a wine as rich, luscious, intense, mouthfilling and dense, among many other descriptors.

I say this with no cynicism or criticism, implicit or otherwise. I’ve used those very words hundreds of times over the years, with the conscious awareness that they excite and invite. Of course, the wines to which they are applied must have those qualities.

Yet those very same words, however accurately applied, are also a bit of a trap. Precisely because they do excite and invite, other equally valuable—maybe even more valuable—words get underused or even fall by the wayside altogether.

Take "subtle," for example. I once queried a friend of mine who is in what I call the money business. He knows words well enough, but he prefers numbers. Data. Quantification.

I asked him, "What does the word ‘subtle’ signify to you?" He replied, "When I hear ‘subtle,’ I think: ‘weak, thin, light.’"

This is a pity. Subtle is, for me, one of the most underused positive words in the wine-tasting vocabulary. It signals a taster’s recognition and acknowledgement that power is not everything in wine, that shadings and nuance carry weight and are not just valuable but essential to genuine refinement in wine.

Which would you rather have? A subtle Barolo? Or a powerful one? The two are not mutually exclusive, but the way those words are perceived today they are very nearly so.

Words do matter. Sometimes we need to refresh our vocabularies. For example, I’ve increasingly come to prefer the concept of “surprise” to describe a wine that I previously would have called “original.”

Is this mere semantics? Yes and no. At one level, sure it is; I’m substituting one term for another. But at another level, it’s more than semantic.

Why “surprise”? Because it underscores, I believe, precisely what it is that makes a wine seem original to us. We may or may not like the surprise we’re getting, the disruption of our expectation. After all, being “original” doesn’t automatically make a wine good or great (think orange wines).

Another underused—and desirable—word is “harmonious.” It might seem to be synonymous with the much more commonly used term "balance," yet I think it’s substantively different. Semantics yet again? Maybe. But hear me out.

Harmonious is a more encompassing notion. Fine wines are more than simply balanced. That’s just the beginning. Gyroscopes, after all, do more than keep something upright by offsetting up from down. They also are constantly addressing and compensating for forces from side to side.

Keep in mind that with wine all sorts of forces converge in our taste impression: tannins, acidity, sweetness, fruitiness, fragrance, aftertaste and so forth. Balance hardly captures the necessary and desirable equilibrium.

Indeed, there really is no such thing as balance, as it’s conventionally understood. "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion," observed the philosopher Francis Bacon. Harmoniousness is the key. It’s a more encompassing, gyroscopic ideal than just balance.

If you think about all of the wines that you consider, regardless of style, to be "great," I can almost guarantee you that you will conclude that they are harmonious, never mind whether the wine is as powerful as a Vintage Port or as butterfly-fragile as a Muscadet.

Words do matter. I do like, by the way, some words that are relatively new to the contemporary tasting vocabulary and are increasingly seen, such as “precision” and “energetic.” They connote useful and desirable qualities even if, in the case of energetic, it’s more evocative than precise. (I assume, perhaps wrongly, that wines of “energy” always have a bright, refreshing acidity.)

And yourself? Are there wine words you would like to see embraced, or discarded? Words that should be used but aren’t? Or are overused? Or underappreciated?

"All I know is what I have words for," said the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Got words?

Mark Horowitz
New York, NY —  March 7, 2017 12:59pm ET
The word "curate" in all its manifestations (curated, curator...) has become cliche and meaningless, in any use, except for the gallery/museum world.
Gargi Kothari
Mumbai —  March 7, 2017 3:21pm ET
Talking about semantics, I do like the term elegant which could be close to feminine or even subtle but are they all the same? Probably not. :)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 7, 2017 3:42pm ET
I like "harmonious" and have used it often for wines that have that attribute. A "surprise," however, can be pleasant or nasty.

I like subtle wines, but because the receiving end of the communication might not share my positive view of it I prefer "deft."
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  March 7, 2017 5:27pm ET
I like to use the word spherical to describe a wine that is in total harmony with no odd or rough edges. To me this means more than "in balance". The really great wines go beyond just being in balance. They have a roundness/wholeness that has everything in the proper place. Wines like this are seamless from entry to finish.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  March 7, 2017 11:38pm ET
Great perspective but you have let the dogs out. Here are a few favorite wine descriptors:
-- A nice nasal backwash
-- Aromas of the southside of a northbound donkey
-- Literally, a hedonistic, painfully intense, fruit salad of what
-- It has an hallucinogenic smack finish
-- Notes of mildewed bubblegum perfume dominate
-- A fruit fly pooped in this wine
-- It tastes like grapes
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  March 8, 2017 8:02am ET
Hear, hear Matt!
Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  March 8, 2017 12:34pm ET
Aristocrat -
In the pure sense of the word.
Being of the privileged upper class of its peers (wines) - special rank, elite, prestige.....and so forth.
Quite broad a definition and narrow at the same time.
Robert Hight
CA —  March 14, 2017 1:10am ET
Hi Matt,
Here's a few more rarely used descriptors, but certainly to the point:
---hydrogen fruit bomb
---holy crap, what's that?
---tastes like room temperature dog p*ss
---vegetable, mineral or what? I give up
---who knew you could do that to a grape
---I can't feel my tongue
---even Bacchus would have spit
Keep up the great work and buy American.
James J Frakes
Rockford. IL —  March 14, 2017 2:17pm ET
A word that I find very precise but underused is: "austere." I use it most often with Petit Syrah, when the given wine is severe, stern or harsh, with unrelenting tannins.
Wimberly Miree
Birmingham, AL, USA —  March 14, 2017 11:17pm ET
A relatively new word in my wine vocabulary to describe a wine that fulfills my higher expectations is: "Deliciosity." I don't think it is in the dictionary, but it should be. To me, it is a single word that is a marvelous substitute for several sentences that would otherwise be necessary to convey my opinion that a wine has many of the elements I love in a wine, regardless of age and development. It's use also requires that the wine does not have any serious negative elements of wines that I dislike. I find myself using it more and more frequently in my wine notes.

I don't recall where I first saw or heard it's use, but suspect it may well have been in an article by Matt Kramer; and if it wasn't, it should have been.
Paul Gallagher
Berkeley Heights, NJ —  March 15, 2017 10:24pm ET
Matt, I do want to say that you are an excellent writer. I've never read anything of yours and not thought that.

I like the words "precise" and "crisp" as wine descriptors, and in general for that matter. I don't care for "sanguine". I like "subtle" and "understated" too. I've always thought that "honest" was pretty hokey when describing a wine.
Paul Paradis
Montréal,QC —  March 21, 2017 1:00pm ET
I hate to hear that a wine is straight.
Straight as an arrow or rather crooked?
What does it mean anyway?
We often see the word used in French:
" ce vin est droit"
I wish it would be replaced by something
more precise.
Kudos for your nice work!

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