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What does “elegant” mean in wine?

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“Elegant” is one of those words critics love to use to describe wine, but it sure must befuddle civilians. Here’s Hugh Johnson referring to “elegant reds” from Portugal. Jancis Robinson calls a Spanish red “elegant” in this tweet. Antonio Galloni says some ’06 Barolos have elegance. Steve Tanzer calls a Paso Robles Rhône-style blend elegant, while I myself said the Riberas I tasted in San Francisco last year possessed “great elegance.”

What does elegance mean, anyhow? Its roots go back through French to the Latin verb ligare, which means “to tie, bind, unite,” which in turn seems tied to another old Latin word, eligere, “to select” (from which our word “election” derives). The modern meaning of elegant, of course, is “dignified richness and grace, as of design, dress, style, etc.” (according to my Webster’s New World Dictionary).

It’s hard to define just what any of these terms mean. I have young hip-hoppy friends who probably would never use the word “elegant” to describe anything, thinking it poofy; but in their own way, they know an elegant rap when they hear one. So there’s an element of culture (or class) that comes into play when you use words like “elegant.”

But let’s stick to wine. All the critics are throwing the e-word around, even though nobody’s quite sure what it means when it comes to that liquid in the glass. So let’s break it down. I can speak only for myself, but I think my views are widely shared. An “elegant” wine, first of all, has a certain mouthfeel. In my own vocabulary I use words like “silky” and “velvety,” which of course suggest images of fine fabrics, like taffeta or old tapestries. These are expensive items to buy; the implication is that “elegant” pertains to costly wines. It takes quite a bit of work (in both the vineyard and the winery) for the winemaker to create that mouthfeel, and the cost of doing so eventually finds its way into the price of the bottle.

But “elegant” is much more than just mouthfeel. There are silky wines that are mediocre. To truly be “elegant” the wine must also be superbly balanced: in acids, tannins, alcohol, fruit and oak. It might be so tannic that you can hardly drink it young, but that doesn’t preclude elegance: classified growth Bordeaux is famously elegant even though it needs years in the cellar. I’d add complexity to the list of qualities implied by “elegance.” Just as a tapestry is so complex you can look at it for a long time and keep seeing new things, so too an elegant wine only gradually unfolds itself.

It might be easier to break it down if I look at specific wines I’ve called elegant in the last month or so. The Amici 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley, got the word, as did the 2010 Truchard, from Carneros, and the 2009 Arrowood, from Sonoma County. Moving on to Chardonnay, I called Falcone’s 2012 “elegant,” but I also found elegance in Retro’s 2009 Old Vine Petite Sirah, from Howell Mountain. You don’t usually associate brawny, muscular Petite Sirah with elegance, any more than you associate Jesse Ventura (remember him?) with elegance. But a big man can be elegant: Orson Welles, in late middle age, was. Pinot Noir is famously elegant; Williams Selyem’s 2011 Allen Vineyard defines that quality, even as the wine itself is brooding and needs plenty of time in the bottle.

It may be clarifying to draw analogies to other consumer goods. Tailored clothing is easy to describe as elegant: a great suit (men’s or women’s), a fine necktie, a stylish pair of Italian loafers, even a well-cut pair of jeans. Cars can be elegant: I think Audis and BMWs are, with their stylish lines. Actors can be elegant: Claire Danes, Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney come to mind. On the other hand, the following actors are not elegant: Adam Sandler, Kathy Bates, Jack Black, Russell Crowe. This doesn’t mean they’re not great, likeable actors. It just means that, whatever “elegant” means, they don’t have it.

Michael Broadbent, in his Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting (a useful book whose diminutive size belies its trove of information), describes an “elegant” wine as one possessing “stylish balance and refined quality.” Again, these words are, by themselves, hard to define. But, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, he couldn’t define it, “but I know it when I see it.”

  1. I think of self-possession when I think of elegance. As far as wines go, those that have elegance know themselves and are true to what they are. There are no tannic flourishes just for the sake of “bigness” or excessive acid attenuating the mid-palate mouthfeel just because it can. Elegant wines, and I see this quality even in the fermentor, have a sense of completeness and proportion. If they were people, they would know the right gesture, and they would make it.

  2. Steven, do you think that only certain varieties are capable of elegance?

  3. I think restraint and subtlety have to be part of the definition. The antitheses of elegant wines are flashy/showy wines with “gobs” of anything. I would second Steve in highlighting “proportion.”
    I think the definition of “elegant” that I find most useful relates to scientific theory — an elegant theory is one that explains many phenomena with few independent variables. To generalize this, something is elegant to the extent that it produces a striking effect from a seemingly simple attribute or combination of attributes. In wine, I think burgundy’s “peacock’s tail” effect on the palate might exemplify this sense of “elegance.”

  4. Barnaby Hughes says:

    A good synonym for elegant is refined. Elegant wines are not rough, harsh, overly tannic, thick in the mouth, rustic, etc. I use the word elegant above all to describe Pinot Noirs, but also Champagnes.

  5. I use this word combined with “aroma” or “taste”, by example “elegant aroma” to convey a sense of my sense that the wine has a depth of flavors that are superlative in terms of specific aroma attributes. Also, to emphasize that his is not a rustic wine. When a professional quality expert uses this word it matters most with big wines.

  6. Marlene Rossman says:

    Elegant wines show their pedigree. They whisper, not shout.
    They are as Barnaby Hughes says, “refined.” Elegant wines also means that they are balanced. Nothing sticks out, all the components are there are they meld beautifully.

  7. If a person is elegant, you know it; it’s just *all over* them. Ditto for kitschy.

    And, yeah, some wines actually are like that. :)

  8. An elegant comment from the Dude himself!

  9. Steve:

    I do think that any variety can show elegance, a sense of self-possession. The characteristic that is “elegant” will, of course, be different. The appropriate amount of acidity in a Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, the right bit of viscosity in a Zinfandel.

  10. Hi Steve
    Love the post. But I think it -and the comments – show just what the problem is with using ‘elegant’, since it means something indefinable and therefore different to everyone who reads it, and probably different to how it was intended by the user. Ditto stylish – we may know what we mean, but… if it’s elegant to the taster, fine, he /she knows what he means – but how helpful to others is it really?

    Wine description, when the audience doesn’t have a glass of it, is so difficult that I’m in favour of simplification – of course I fail in this regard often – and am grateful to the WSET tutor who said he didn’t know what elegant meant in respect of wine – and this I think is borne out by your clothing and car analogies, in which most people would broadly agree on what is stylish…

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