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Drinking Out Loud

The Six Essential Wine Words

Do words matter? They sure do

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 6, 2013

You would think that the most challenging element of wine is tasting it. After all, if you want to get some sort of credential such as a Master Sommelier or Master of Wine (surely it's only a matter of time before credential bloat has us referring to our wine servers as "Doctor") you have to successfully identify a bunch of wines tasted blind, i.e., with labels unseen.

But tasting wine is not the real challenge. That's because—this might surprise you—wine tasting really isn't very difficult.

Oh, playing the wine version of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," where you have to identify the wine blind, has its challenges. But it's just a boy's club thing, a rite that offers a demonstration of public prowess or an equally public prospect of humiliation.

Wine tasting intended for true discernment is altogether something else. It's an investigation of differences, a matter of recognizing better from worse. (In this context, tasting blind does offer an opportunity of removing distractions and, yes, prejudices.) And doing that, I can assure you from decades of teaching wine-tasting classes, is not at all difficult. Almost anyone who's willing to pay attention and has just a modicum of experience can identify a better-quality wine from a lesser one. Really, it's no big deal.

Instead, the real challenge is putting words to wine. This is where many people—most, even—stumble. The vocabulary of wine is what's really daunting. This is why so many parodies exist. Too often, the words put to wine not only stretch credulity, but invite skepticism, if not outright laughter and derision.

Recently, I received a letter from a reader who enclosed a list of 50 descriptive terms for tannins that he had read in various wine publications such as refined, solid, well-behaved, racy, polished, dry, dusty and sinewy, among others. "I guess it's no wonder I don't know what tannins are," he noted.

We could, of course, take the Trappist monk approach, tasting the wine and then shuffling away in silence. But where's the pleasure in that? It offers no companionability or sense of shared discovery. Words bring wine to life. Wine—fine wine, anyway—not only invites, but very nearly demands, comment.

You can make a case that only six words—values, really—are essential. They involve judgment, rather than mere description. (Forget flavor descriptors. Writers use them because they are necessary to tell you what a wine tastes like.)

In any wine situation, whether at the dinner table or in a professional tasting, if you assess wine using these six words you'll nail what this taster, anyway, thinks is really important. As follows:

Finesse. Although now a proper English word, it's clearly French and is easily enough translated: fine-ness. In a world where the great majority of wines were once coarse and rustic, it takes no imagination to understand how "fine-ness" was seen as fundamental to real quality.

Today, finesse refers to something a bit more specific but no less critical. Finesse is the quality of how a wine delivers itself to you. If this "delivery" strikes you as heavy or clumsy or somehow disjointed, the wine lacks finesse. And it should be marked down accordingly. A wine that lacks finesse is, by definition, a lesser wine if only because you will quickly tire of it—and it will tire you (see Fatigue).

Harmony. Another old-fashioned virtue that, like finesse, has stood the test of time. Some tasters like to talk about balance, which is a trendy wine word these days, if only because it's invariably employed in defending high-alcohol wines.

A better, more comprehensive word in my opinion is harmony. What's the difference? A wine that is harmonious has effectively corralled the various forces present in a wine—fruit, tannins, acidity, sweetness, alcohol—and managed to achieve a persuasive, cohesive whole.

Now, I'm no fan of high-alcohol wines. Yet I'd be less than honest if I didn't acknowledge that I've had a good number of wines where the high alcohol (typically 15 percent or higher) simply didn't intrude. I was neither aware of it nor did it detract. The reason was harmony.

An emphasis on harmoniousness in wine is a subtle yet powerful evaluation term. Think of clothes. How often have we seen someone who is obviously expensively dressed, yet it doesn't work? He or she fails to pull it off almost invariably because of an absence of harmony, which involves not just color coordination and texture but also appropriateness. (The late Elsie de Wolfe, a renowned interior decorator, famously defined good taste as "Simplicity, suitability and proportion.")

It's no different with wine. Great wines are always somehow effortless. Flavors are beautifully defined yet flow seamlessly together. Fruit and acidity are in perfect equilibrium. The wine practically floats. That's harmony, which is a helluva lot more than just balance.

Layers. Everyone talks about complexity in wine and there's nothing wrong with that term. Personally, I think that "layers" better captures what really separates better wines from worse. Maybe it's just a matter of semantics, but hear me out.

Whenever the word "complexity" is invoked, it implicitly suggests that more is better. That's probably true, but how that "more" is expressed is critical. We've all had wines that have rushed up to us with an almost explosive array of scents and tastes. We're wowed. "Boy, that's complex," we say.

But if you step back and ask yourself (and the wine) whether it has layers, you might well arrive at a different conclusion about the wine's apparent complexity. You might find that, actually, there are no layers, or only a few. You might then conclude that its apparent complexity is superficial.

Truly complex wines run deep. They meter out to you their complexity in, well, layers. The more you keep diving in, the more layers you pass through. Very great wines are seemingly bottomless. You keep passing through yet more layers, discovering something new and different.

Detail. It's not enough that a wine has layers/complexity. The elements of these layers, the various flavors and nuances that compose the layers, must be delineated. Really fine wines don't give you a sense of the flavors being smeared or running together. Instead, the details are precisely defined and easily distinguished.

Fatigue. This is an odd term, I know. But if you view wine through the lens of "fatigue" you will more easily discern qualities and deficiencies that separate truly fine wine from wannabe fine.

Put simply, great wines don't fatigue you. No matter how many times you return just simply to smell the wine you're exhilarated. And each time you taste, far from growing bored with, or tired of, the wine, instead you feel like you're bicycling with the wind at your back. It's effortless.

Great wines don't fatigue. It's as simple as that. They don't fatigue because of several of the attributes previously cited such as finesse, delicacy, delineated flavors and layered complexity, among other virtues.

After tasting a wine several times—and getting past the sometimes deceptive initial first impression—you should ask the question: "Does this wine fatigue?" How you respond can tell you a lot about the intrinsic quality of what you're tasting.

Surprise. Last and hardly least is the element of surprise. This is another way of saying "originality." Interesting wines offer an element of surprise, of unpredictability; great wines guarantee that sensation.

No matter how many times you taste, say, a great red Burgundy or Barolo, you're always surprised. The profoundness lies not just from complexity, but from a sensation of new discovery, even with wines that you (wrongly) imagined you already knew.

Surprise is the secret sauce, if you will, of all of the world's most compelling wines.

David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  August 6, 2013 1:31pm ET
Matt: Thank you so much. Every time you write a mini essay on wine you open up a new understanding on the world of wine for me. You always give me a new and clearer way of how to achieve the true enjoyment of wine. As a wine drinker for 47 years I have always been tempted to over-complicate things and the result is tedious and tiring. Every time I read your articles it opens up a whole new world of wine enjoyment for me. Keep up the good writing & teaching.
Catherine Bremer
Chicago, Illinois, USA —  August 6, 2013 6:13pm ET
Off the subject, Matt, I really think an article about the emergence of high end Argentinian Cab Franc is long overdue. This varietal is expressing beautifully in Mendoza and there is starting to be quite a buzz if you put your ear to the ground.
Raymond Archacki Jr
Wethersfield, CT USA —  August 6, 2013 10:52pm ET
Matt - Layers is a great word instead of complexity. It describes how a wine unfolds as you drink it over an evening. I often get bored by some high rated wines that only offer one layer. Fatigue is another one that I think most of us relate to. How often have we kept that last 1/2" of a really special wine in the glass just to keep swirling and sniffing. Nice article and I enjoy your outlook on wine.
Terry French
Columbia, MO —  August 7, 2013 10:24am ET
To my mind, this is the best, most helpful article that you have written. Unfortunately, so many wines being produced for the American market, especially blends, are aiming for sweetish, overblown flavors that are attractive to the palate of those used to Coca Cola. Most of them are being made by big companies in focus-grouped styles. I continue to search out wines made by small producers who aim to produce wines with the qualities that you listed.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  August 8, 2013 11:52am ET
You are forever prying our minds a bit more open to embrace the nuances of fine wine by providing us with ways to appreciate and describe what is happening to our senses during a taste experience. Thank you!
Ed Frankoski
Huntington, NY —  August 8, 2013 7:35pm ET
Matt, were you relaxing somewhere on vacation when you wrote this? I have to reprise what Terry said, this is the best you have written. Frankly, this piece is a true classic! Not only is it right on target, but you conjured up such a "mind's eye" image of different layers of wine practically floating through the air. What a view. I'll never use the word balanced again. Cheers! EJF
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 9, 2013 10:44pm ET
I have to agree with other comments posted that this is one of your better essays, Matt. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. I still don't think I agree with a majority of what you postulate, but I REALLY LIKE the fact that you're endeavoring to make distinctions in this way. It's artful and fun!

Finesse, I'm on board hands down. Harmony is a semantic debate, perhaps(???) implying that balance is between only 2 elements, harmony 3 or more, I suppose. I'm unconvinced of the need for such a distinction.

I've often puzzled over the distinction between layers and complexity... even after your discussion I still do.

Perhaps most of all, I disagree with all my soul against your position on detail. Detail CAN BE wonderful, but is that only because it makes descriptors easier to find when attempting to describe a wine? That's self-serving. To my mind, detail can actually detract from harmony. I believe it ought to be DIFFICULT to distinguish elemental flavors in a wine; it suggests superior integration, for one. Surely there is a great benefit when the elements and flavors float seamlessly into one another? Is cohesion (with complexity) not desirable?

On the other hand, fatigue is one where we see eye to eye, emphatically. Excellent point, overall, but in terms of calling this out separately, isn't fatigue simply a consequense of imbalance or dissonance (dis-harmony)? I'd say it is, because it seems that one (or several) elements might weigh too heavily and detract from the experience.

Surprise? God, I hope so!
David L Gerard
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA —  August 10, 2013 12:02pm ET
A big, high alcohol, California red may provide pleasure, and possibly a hangover, but it is definitely not displaying harmony. Thus revealing its inferior qualities. However, I have had many big, high alcohol California reds with harmony, as Mr. Kramer also states. To me this is a critical element, for without the harmony I doubt the wine will have finesse nor layers and one will reach fatigue rather quickly. Just had a Cotes du Rhone that some reviewer rated rather high and I was left pondering the disjointed effort in my glass. Evidence of the subjectivity of the wine tasting experience?
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  August 11, 2013 3:13pm ET
If the value of wine writing to give to the reader the tools and the words to help them appreciate wine better, this article scores a perfect 100 points! One of the best, and most helpful, you've ever written.
Dan Childers
Cedar Rapids, IA —  August 12, 2013 10:11pm ET
This is a classic piece! Very helpful to learning how to understand and appreciate good wine. I think the key component of the piece is the concept of "layers." I think that is a much more subtle and descriptive term than "complexity." Thank you for a very thoughtful and insightful article.
Ingrid Saldana
México  —  August 16, 2013 1:30pm ET
Layers, fatigue and surprise great words! Also sound perfect translating them into spanish!!! I always enjoy your articles.
Robert Noe
Farmington Hills, Michigan, USA —  August 22, 2013 6:16am ET
I agree with all except surprise. I think it comes across effitist with no real definition. Good article overall.

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