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Can a wine have “soul”?

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My exposure to the word “soul” has been two-fold: philosophically, in the sense of an immaterial essence of our humanity (which may or may not be immortal), as explored by Plato and others, and musically, as defined by the Motown and Stax Volt records I grew up grooving to. Aretha had soul. James Brown had soul. Smokey had soul. If you want to hear soul–at least, through my white ears–check out Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine. That song not only gets your feet moving, it touches on love–lost, deceived, embittered.

I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that any individual wine has an immortal soul, in the philosophic sense. That’s a bit too much. My undergrad degree was in philosophy. I paid close attention to the religious, spiritual and philosophical concepts of the soul. I still do, but in my musings, I never think about wine in that context. However, when I think of wine in the cultural sense of rock and roll, which is enormously important to me, the sound track of my life, I can come up with a concept of wine as having soul.

I was stimulated to think along these lines after reading this online article that talked about wines with soul. The writer defined a soulful wine as “A …wine [that] is a very real combination of scent, flavor and texture that is seamless, multi-faceted, and unending from first sip to swallow, from first sip to last sip.” He had a lot more to say, so I hope you’ll read the piece in its entirety, but his bullet point, I think, was this: “The experience [of a soulful wine] should be such a sensorial onslaught as to capture your complete and undivided attention.”

What the writer seems to be saying is that a soulful wine has something that you can’t define in words. It “captures your attention,” but not the way, say, a noisy garbage truck outside your window at 6 a.m. does. It’s more subtle than that. It’s hard to say exactly how or why it captures your attention; it just does.

If I grant that a wine can be soulful, that leads to a big question: Is a soulful wine one that necessarily earns a high score? To answer this, I went over several years worth of my reviews and searched for the word “soul.” I found it in only a few instances, usually in the sense I employed with a Clos Pegase 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: “…it has an enormous soul of blackberries, black currants, cassis and dark chocolate.” But that isn’t quite what I was looking for; in this case, I used the word “soul” as a synonym for “concentration” or “core,” not in some morally uplifting sense.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century writers had an easier time grappling with the notion of wine’s soul. H. Warner Allen, in “The Romance of Wine” (1932), referring to a Tokay [sic] Essence of 1811, refers to its “peacock’s tail,” comparing it “without exaggeration…to the harmony of the sunset colors.” It had “a radium-like power of emitting particles” that caused him “to meditate.” Other wines elicited similar and in some cases even more rapturous praises.

I suppose H. Warner Allen found “soul” in that wine. Perhaps it’s our more jaded, cautious age that does not permit me to do so, in quite that fashion. I find certain wines “fabulous,” “fantastic,” “stellar” and the like. But anthropomorphising wine isn’t my style. On the other hand, “soul” is just a word. I’ve enjoyed many wines that gave me such “a sensorial onslaught as to capture [my] complete and undivided attention.” Whether or not they had “soul,” I will leave to others to determine.

  1. I don’t know much about labeling wines with “soul” or “no soul,” but I do know that as an avid appreciator of wine, I give certain wines my full and undivided attention while others take it. This tends to represent a significant leap in the overall experience. The wines that tend to steal my attention, despite the circumstances, are also the wines whose smell and taste linger in my memory for years. In addition, they are the wines for which I will empty my wallet of all of its contents. Going with the Aretha analogy though, I feel like the soul she put into her music is recognizable by anyone, not just her fans, so that may be another interesting aspect from which to approach this topic.

  2. What a great question! I think when a winemaker succeeds at interpretting a style and expressing his/her style, a wine can get soul. Sadly lots of wines taste like they have an accountant more than they have soul! Thanks again for asking a great question.

  3. I rather like the “peacock’s tail” definition of soul than that of black music.

    We jokingly talk of wines that are low on the “Soul-O-Meter” in our tastings, and the meaning is clear. It is the absence of beauty that moves you to pay attention.

    Wines with “soul” are like the purest expeessions of beauty. They are Yo-Yo Ma and Picasso and Mamet at their best. They are peacock’s tail in full array. You have no choice but to stop and pay attention.

  4. Patrick says:

    Great subject for discussion. Yeah, I read that piece. I thought his definition of “soul” would fit just about any excellent wine. Those wines commanded his attention because they were well-integrated, unusually high in quality, and priced low, which is fine with me. But adding the word “soul” onto it just muddies up the waters. The day wine critics start to talk about soul is when I get off the bus.

  5. Steve, you got me curious about the word “soul”. So, I did a search on my blog, and the only reference I had made to soul and wine in two years was not Smokey, Aretha, or Marvin Gaye, (Love them all) but I said: “There are other things about Italy that just lift the soul; listen to Andrea Bocelli:”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HD9JCc6LRI8

    Interesting that we both had music on our minds! Maybe just a bit “inspirational”? ;-)

  6. Soul and greatness aren’t the same thing.

    Can a great wines have no soul? I certainly have had some. When a wine, even a modest one, expresses all the facets of its becoming, soil, climate, grape and Man into harmony, with a unique sense of place, then you have soul.

    French sometimes call those terroir-true wines. But that omits the soul of the man or woman who actually is behind this orchestration of factors.

    Soul expresses a deep sense of unity to all these different elements, without necessarily reaching a 95 pts on eRMP.

    Plenty of examples come to mind, both from the old world and the new world. Paul Draper made soul wines. Jacques Reynauld (Rayas) made soul wines, including his unique Vacqueyras from Chateau des Tours. But does Michel Rolland makes soul wines? I haven’t tasted one yet (and I apologize to him and his beloved fans because I do very much like his wines).

  7. Sherman says:

    We can argue at length about whether wines have soul or not, but I do find that regardless of the word used to express some ineffable quality that captures our attention and imagination, such a phenomenon does occur — to those willing to listen and pay attention.

    i call them “lightbulb” wines, as they do tend to hav the effect illustrated in cartoons of a lightbulb going off over someone’s head. It grabs your attention, makes you sit up and pay attention, and changes your outlook in ways both subtle and profound.

    Mine were two Oregon Pinots Noir from the 1997 vintage that changed my appreciation of wine from the occasional beverage to undiscovered works of art in a bottle. It set me on a path that veered in ways subtle at first and became more profound as time passed. Now my career is selling such wines, and I’ve since relocated to southern Oregon — mostly due to the appreciation of two bottles of wine.

    Go figure! :)

    Soulful, artful or just plain wonderful — the fermented juice can effect our lives in profound ways.

  8. MArc nailed it. Soul wine comes from winemakers who are posessed by a sense of how to make a wine express itself in its truest form. Not express the winemakers taste or perception of what a critic wants to taste.

    Steve, are you daft man? How can you speak of soul and not Mention Otis?

  9. Can you not just send a sample off to a lab and they’ll analyze it to see if it contains soul or not?

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