It’s not too much of a reach—if it’s one at all—to say that words applied to wine are fraught, freighted, polarizing. Really, it’s more pronounced today than at any time previous that I can recall. Want proof? I can give it to you in a finger-snap instant: “natural.”
Yet that provocative term is not what I’m thinking about here. Rather, I’ve got in mind certain classic wine terms that are now subject to disparagement, derision and open disdain. These same words—which I’ll get to momentarily—are, in my opinion, not just useful and appropriate. They are essential. Indeed, they are irreplaceable. Our wine experience would be lesser without them.
Allow me to offer three such words that I happily contend we cannot and should not live without.
Are they all overused? They sure are. Are they too often used wrongly or inappropriately, stretched past the breaking point of all plausible meaning? Yes, absolutely. Should they be given a rest or at least a vacation? It’s tempting to say, “Oh yes.”
But precisely because these words are so vital to fine wine—and because they have no comparable equivalents to take up the slack if banished from our vocabularies—we have no choice but to keep them employed, if only more judiciously.
Elegant. Recently, I was dining with a wine producer whose wines are almost universally described as “elegant.” We were drinking a lovely wine—not his—and I commented that I found the wine elegant.
“I really dislike that word,” he said. I expressed surprise, noting how often it has been lavished (by others) on his own wines.
“But it doesn’t mean anything,” he growled. “Every goddamned wine in the world, no matter how extreme or excessive, is described by the winemaker as ‘elegant.’ And if the winery doesn’t say it, the importer, distributor or retailer does. It’s ridiculous.”
Acknowledging this to be so—because, really, there’s no denying the promiscuous ubiquity of “elegant”—I rallied to the cause. Sure, it’s true that there’s no uniform, let alone scientific, definition of elegance. But can you doubt that it exists?
“Elegant,” like good dancing, is a “you know when you see it”—or taste it—quality. If we said that Fred Astaire was fluid and had good line, is that enough? You know it’s not. He went beyond those narrow dance terms, however praiseworthy. He was … well, you know what he was.
Elegant is an essential wine-descriptor, an evocation of a certain quality that sets apart the truly fine from the merely aspirational. This is the key point, the only one that really matters. Great wines are elegant. Great winemakers seek to maneuver their wines toward that goal, if it’s possible. Lesser winemakers are content to allow power to pass for beauty.
As an experiment, try to come up with another one-word substitute for all that “elegant” conveys. Sure, it’s evocative, subjective, unavailable to any sort of absolutist clarity. But what are we to say of Giorgio Armani’s extraordinary design oeuvre? That his work is clean? Uncluttered? Modern? No word other than “elegant” captures what his clothes convey.
So what’s involved in this admittedly vague yet vital word? I would submit that anything deserving of the description (and approbation) of “elegant” must display restraint. In a wine we must sense that there’s more to come, depths that are somehow being metered out to us, layer after layer. Tannins must be also restrained. (How often do we see the descriptor “silky” applied to such restrained tannins? Surely that word suggests elegance in a way that, say, “burlap” does not.)
A certain sense of precision and taste clarity is, I believe, inherent in wines of elegance. Can a wine that lends itself to the word “oaky” ever legitimately be considered elegant? I think not. Nothing of elegance can or should bully your senses. If it’s obvious, it ain’t elegant.
Terroir. Oh, boy. Everybody has an opinion about this supremely ambiguous French word. And, yes, we’ve all seen it applied in ways that are so fanciful as to be absurd.
As for a definition, I long ago offered up the concision of “somewhereness.” Maybe that works for you and maybe not. More important in the context of this column is why the term “terroir”—however you choose to define or understand it—is so important.
Terroir is an essential concept, one for which there is no substitute. It is a way of grasping and trying to understand the subtle interactions of the natural world.
One of the best explanations of the concept comes from, of all sources, the National Book Award–winning novel Cold Mountain (1997). Set in the remote rural mountains of North Carolina in the 1860s, it captures the intimacy with the natural world which the notion of terroir attempts to encapsulate:
“Monroe would have dismissed such beliefs as superstition, folklore. But Ada, increasingly covetous of Ruby’s learning in the ways living things inhabited this particular place, chose to view the signs as metaphoric."
"They were, as Ada saw them, an expression of stewardship, a means of taking care, a discipline. They provided a ritual of concern for the patterns and tendencies of the material world where it might be seen to intersect with some other world. Ultimately, she decided, the signs were a way of being alert, and under those terms she could honor them.”
That’s as good a description of terroir as any I’ve heard or read. It’s a metaphor; a way of being alert. Fine wine is impossible without some sort of understanding akin to terroir. And under those terms, we should honor it.
Minerality. Is this word truly essential? I think it is. But I recognize that other equally valid and evocative words could perhaps be used. Of late, no word has been bandied about more freely than “minerality.”
Not surprisingly, this has provoked a snarling response from those for whom the word is repugnant. Nowhere is this more evident than among scientists, especially those in the academic wine science establishment.
Their insistent, highly vocal rejection of minerality is based on what they see as the ultimate proof of its vacuity: No one has found any demonstrable mechanism by which plants can convey the flavor of a mineral in the soil; ergo, minerality is nonsense.
So far, it’s true that no mechanism has been discovered. But there’s one niggling, far-from-inconsequential fact that wine lovers have known for generations: wines do taste different when grown in certain sorts of soils such as chalk, slate, granite and so forth.
The fact that the mechanism by which this is achieved is so far unknown does not—and should not—negate what we wine lovers know to be so. (My guess, by the way, is that when the mechanism is finally identified it will somehow involve microbes and the larger microbiome, including fungi.)
“Minerality,” however it is accomplished, is real. It is expressed in fine wine, and we, for our part, need to identify and convey that impression. The word serves, even if it cannot (yet) be proved to scientific satisfaction.
Words do matter. Some are essential not just as descriptors but as vehicles for insight. I nominate these three. Feel free to toss in your own—or toss out mine.