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What is an “intellectual wine”?

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I used the phrase “intellectually appealing” on a wine I reviewed yesterday. I’ve used it before; I know what I mean, in my mind, but I never really tried to define it before, and I think that some people who read a review that contains the word “intellectual” might scratch their heads or arch their eyebrows and think, “What the heck he is talking about?”

So it’s time for me to define it, both for you and for me.

The wine in question yesterday was Foxen’s 2010 Williamson-Dore Vineyard Syrah, from the Santa Ynez Valley. I went into my notes and looked up further instances where I recently used the word “intellectual.” There was Boheme 2009 Stuller Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Sonoma Coast, which I described as “an intellectual wine, elusive and challenging, that makes you think.” And Lynmar 2010 La Sereinité Chardonnay, from Russian River Valley: “austere and tantalizing…an intellectual wine.” And Lucia 2010 Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands: “An eccentric Chardonnay…well-made and has intellectual appeal.” And Korbin Kameron 2008 Cuvée Kristin, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma Valley with “extra complexity that makes it intellectually interesting.” And Baldacci 2010 Sorelle Chardonnnay, Carneros, which has “a complex intellectual appeal.” And on and on.

What can “intellectual” possibly mean when applied as an adjective to wine? The word means “of or pertaining to the intellect,” so we must first come up with a satisfactory definition of intellect. The conventional dictionary meaning is “a mind or intelligence, especially a superior one,” but this hardly begins to scratch the surface of what I mean when I call a wine “intellectual.”

We all have minds. Some of us are more prone to live interiorly than others. To call a person “an intellectual” long has been a mixed message. On the one hand, the culture has a history of anti-intellectualism: “pointy-headed intellectual,” also known as “egghead,” has been an epithet applied to certain individuals by others who believe they think too much, or, at least, think the wrong thoughts.

On the other hand, our culture also has had a sort of grudging admiration for intellectuals. Albert Einstein was practically a national hero, even though almost nobody could say exactly what his intellectual achievements had been. People just knew he was smart and on our side, and that was enough to make him admired.

I’ve been perceived as an intellectual all my life (when I was younger, my friends used to call me “Professor”). I do tend to live in my mind: among other things, I’m fascinated by cosmology. Why are we here? Why does something exist, rather than nothing? What does it all mean? Thinking as hobby, as recreation, comes as naturally to me as jogging or lifting weights at the gym, or writing this blog, for that matter. I think Tom Wark picked up on this quality of mine when he wrote about me, one month after I launched this blog in 2008, and headlined it “Steve Heimoff and the Active Mind.”

This long segue into the architecture of intellectualism is meant to shed light on what I, and others, mean when we describe a wine as having intellectual appeal. Lettie Teague, in Food & Wine, said she often was told that “Barolo is an intellectual’s wine,” although she admitted she wasn’t quite sure what to make of that claim. Another writer, from a New York wine store, called a 2007 Levet Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche Côte-Rôtie “both intellectual and savage,” while the Montreal Gazette’s wine critic quoted Olivier Humbrecht, from Zind-Humbrecht, as telling him Riesling is “an intellectual wine” that “demands too much of wine drinkers to ever become a mainstream wine…”.

This last begins to get to the truth of the matter. An intellectual wine is not a hedonistic wine, one that charms you right off the bat. An intellectual wine tends to have a certain austerity. It most certainly possesses structure. There are many wines that are austere and have structure that are not intellectual wines: they are simply lean. An intellectual wine, on the other hand, makes you think, because you discern that there’s something elusively tantalizing about it you can’t quite put your finger on. But you want to. You long to understand what it is that titillates your imagination and keeps you coming back for more. You have to think about the wine, play with it, dig deeper down into the bedrock to see what you find. I will quote Quintessa’s former winemaker, Aaron Pott, who, although he is describing his own creation and therefore can be accused of some bias, wrote, of the 2003 vintage, “It is an intellectual wine requiring study to understand its full profound genius.” I myself reviewed that wine six years ago, and while I did not use the word “intellectual,” I scored it 94 points and called it “beautiful.” Yes, an intellectual wine can be beautiful, too.

  1. Howard G. Goldberg says:

    In my worldview, there is no such thing as an “intellectual wine.” The problem is simply semantic: trying to force an adjective-as-square-peg into a round hole occupying, traditionally, the left-hand side of a noun. Writing something like “an intellectually challenging wine” addresses the meaning of the issue more clearly, even it the phrase lacks the concision the writer craves. The English language, for all its — you should excuse the expression, liquidity — can of course present tightness difficulties. We should, instead, all write in Yiddish. That language enables the same words to be positive and negative. You could say, for example (in an English translation): “This winemaker has a good mind on his shoulders.”

  2. If an intellectual wine is a wine you can’t appreciate or fully enjoy without knowing its story, then what you are really enjoying is the story. If you have been around as long as I have, you have pretty much heard them all the stories, each a dozen times with only slight variations, so you stop paying attention to the story and just look at the wine.

  3. I think an intellectual wine is not about the story behind it, but the story in the glass.

    Riesling is a perfect example of an intellectual wine, because it demands that you spend time with it, paying attention to subtle details to fully understand it’s depth. It’s not about the story, but you do have to think about the wine.

    I am really into the idea of intellectual wines; wines that make people who taste them for the first time say things like, “well, that’s interesting” or “wow, that’s different”. I believe that the things you like right away (like sweet wines) often don’t have the staying power to be enjoyed for a long time, while things that you have to think about to appreciate are the things that you enjoy more and more as time goes by.

    Another great post Steve. Thank you

  4. Steve, I think your use of ‘intellectual’ is consistent with the descriptions you shared, when a wine compels you to look deeper for the message when elements are not completely obvious, or tangible when compared to what is normally expected. yet there is still ‘something’ there that you need to wrap your head around and convey the essence of experience. I think I used the term ‘intellectual’ for the 2002 Scholium Project Sylphs (Chardonnay from Guman Vineyard, a wine that was micro-oxygenated and went through a 39 month fermentation. It was a brilliant wine that was so different from what I expected in a Chardonnay but certainly was something special.

  5. Patrick Frank says:

    I think that a lot of the intellectual appeal of wines (only the better ones of course) is similar to the appeal of Chinese landscape paintings from the Song or Yuan dynasties. Many great winemakers and great artists work with the awareness of a tradition behind them, even if they are rebelling against it. And when the experience of a certain wine or painting causes you to reflect on where it came from and what sort of statement it makes in comp. with its neighbors & predecessors, then, that approaches intellectual appreciation.

  6. Gabe, thank you back.

  7. All of these things are reflexive and tell us more about the drinker and writer than the wine. This is fine and appropriate; but let’s not confuse anthropomorphizing a wine, as a hermeneutic act, with the wine as a thing itself

  8. DR, I had to look “hermeneutic” up in the dictionary. It means “interpretive.” What I get from your comment is, there are 2 ways of experiencing things like wine: purely organoleptically (which is the way, say, Masters of Wine do when tasting blind) and within the context of knowing something about the wine (say, that it’s a good Bordeaux). My own approach is to have some context to the tasting: not double blind, but single blind. I don’t agree that knowing something about the wine is “anthropomorphizing” it. But it does bring a more complex, albeit more subjective element into the experience.

  9. Steve, your last paragraph says some mysterious things, and mystery, even the color, is what its about.
    “The story (mystery) in the glass” says volumes, and I refer to “intellectual” wine as cerebral, though I’ve used that term only twice, once here, for those who might be interested in how I use it:
    http://nhwineman.blogspot.com/2012/01/amon-ra-barossa-valley-2006-shiraz.html

  10. At times it seems to me that wines are either 1) hedonistic and require no effort to enjoy–they simply please with their overt qualities or 2) they are intellectual and call for some mindful searching because there is a slight tease that eggs us on. I love them both. Of late, that latter seems have seized my attention.

  11. My only point is that giving a wine a quality like “intellectual”, to my mind, says more about the taster, than the wine. That’s fine. It’s certainly NOT a criticism; it’s useful to know about the taster if you’re using him as a platform for recommendations.
    This is contrary to telling us about, say the structure, which will tell us something about the wine; though in fairness, also something about the taster as, while we are all the same species and taste via the mouth AND retronasal olfaction, we have different quirks, strengths and weaknesses in our tasting.

    As far as anthropomorphizing is concerned, intellectual is an anthropic quality. So…

  12. DR, ultimately you’re right. It’s in the mind of the beholder. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Tom Barras, they’ve seized my attention too. Thanks.

  14. Steve, I read this post as a cry for help, and I can relate in my own small way: “How can I describe this sensation without using a pinhead word?!”

    I got stuck on your description of the “elusive” Boheme wine, which I described (OK, different vintage) as: “…the 2008 Stuller Vineyard Pinot Noir… peeks in and out of vanilla, potpourri, and savory marjoram aromas, but the plum fruit flavor is zaftig and fresh” …seeing a compliment in “elusive” and “peeking in and out of.”

    Now we’re getting closer than the abstract “intellectual,” potentially a turn-off, but we just need better, more direct words to tell the story about a wine that draws you in by degrees.

  15. James, “we just need better, more direct words…”. Possibly. But it’s not gonna happen, because you’ll never get all the wine writers to agree to a common vocabulary.

  16. Common vocabulary might be easier and more appropriate than common arithmetic skills…

  17. TomHill says:

    Tom Sez:
    “At times it seems to me that wines are either 1) hedonistic and require no effort to enjoy–they simply please with their overt qualities or 2) they are intellectual and call for some mindful searching because there is a slight tease that eggs us on. I love them both. Of late, that latter seems have seized my attention.”

    Tom,
    I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. I think it’s more of a continuous spectrum. I like to think of wines having both a “sensual/hedonistic” component…and an “intellectual” component. In some wines, the sensual dominates…in others the intellectual dominates. I find my tastes have been gravitating towards wines that have a strong “intellectual” component. Which is why I search out wines from unusual varieties and unusual areas.
    I find that w/ many wines with a strong “intellectual” component…I’m often at a loss for words to describe them. For instance, skin contact whites or orange wines. I’m often at a loss for precise descriptors. I will often sit there and struggle w/ the words to describe it and fit it into my tasting experience. I like those wines. They make me think. Sometimes I have difficulty deciding whether I actually “like” the wine or noot.
    OTOH, there are wines like 2$Chuck. I struggle to come up w/ descriptors for the, “Grapey” is about all my limited vocabulary can dredge up. But the “intellectual” component oof those wines is pretty much zero…as in 0.0000000. In the end, that’s the probllem with 2$Chuck…it’s “boring” as hell…the ultimate pejorative of any wine in my book.
    Tom

  18. Of course, we English are the only race which criticises people for being intellectual. Hence the phrase, “too clever by half”, and “too clever for his own good”.

    Wonder if that would hold for intellectual wines?

  19. Bob Henry, I didn’t take any notes at the walkaround, so I can’t really share specific wines. Sorry. Likewise I only took perfunctory notes of the Jadot. I do recall that the 1990 was there and fine as it was, was too young. I understand our modern use of the word “understanding” to sometimes mean “meh” but I don’t think that’s what Frederic meant. I think he meant it in an appreciative way.

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