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Annals of wine descriptors: “Profound”

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What is a “profound” wine?

 Lettie Teague indirectly raised this question in her recent Wall Street Journal profile of Joe Salamone, the wine buyer at Crush Wine & Spirits, which is in midtown Manhattan. Teague’s column was, in part, about the language people use to describe wine; Salamone, referring to a particular Savoie red, liked it “for its freshness and structure, although,” he added, “it’s not a profound wine by any means.”

Whatever does that mean?

The word “profound” pops up time and again in formal descriptions of certain (usually well-known) wines. Someone on Wine Beserkers, writes that “you can sum up [Romanée-St.-Vivant] in just a few words (fruit, five-spice, and satin–there, done)–but it is still a profound wine because its form is beautiful even though it’s not complicated.” K&L Wine, down the freeway from me in Redwood City, uses the p-word in its newsletter with almost profligate frequency: a 2003 Ausone is “profoundly concentrated,” a Branaire-Ducru of the same vintage “profound,” while, on the other hand, quoting Parker, the ’83 Suduiraut is “not as profound as the other 1983s…”. Our friend Matt Kramer has described the Pinot Noirs of the [far] Sonoma Coast as being among “the most profound Pinot Noirs grown in America…” while even a modest Sherry, an Amontillado from Tio Diego, is anointed with profundity in the British financial magazine, Money Week, where it’s described as “iconic and profound.”

These different writers seem to be describing the same thing, but from the consumer’s point of view, it’s hard to know what it is they’re talking about. How can a wine be “not complicated” and yet “profound”? Can a Sherry be “profound” in the same way as Ausone? Are there degrees of profundity? And what is the monetary value of “profundity” in a wine compared to one that’s merely very good without being profound?

No wonder wine shoppers get a little crazy.

I myself am no stranger to the p-word. I called the aroma of a B Cellars 2008 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet “profound in black currants and cassis,” and also described as “profound” the tannins on a 2008 Cabernet, the PerryMore (also from Beckstoffer ToKalon). Clearly we writers are trying to communicate something important when we use this word to describe a wine or some aspect of it. I italicize this phrase deliberately, for it raises another question: Can individual parts of a wine be profound, while others aren’t? If, in fact, a single part (structure, aromatics, tannins) is profound, does that then raise the entire wine (which is the sum of all its parts) to profundity?

You can say that these are just angels-dancing-on-pinheads debates, fit pastime for indolent Jesuits, and in part, that’s right. But it matters, at least to those of us who take the art of wine writing seriously.

We know certain things: to call a wine “profound” is probably the highest accolade you can give it. Writers do not and should not use the word promiscuously. We know, too (or at least we hope), that when a writer calls a wine “profound”, it’s because that writer has experienced a great many great wines over a long period of time, and therefore knows what he’s talking about. If Joe Blow, who’s been writing about wine for a year or two, says a wine is profound, one is entitled to doubts. Perhaps he read an established writer use that word, was impressed, and is trying it out for himself. (By the way, it’s no criticism of young wine writers to say they’re still trying to find a style.) If on the other hand a seasoned professional who’s experienced great wine for decades calls a wine profound, our ears prick up. Mine do, if it’s a writer I respect.

I associate profundity in California wines chiefly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I don’t particularly want to rehash the debate over what constitutes a “noble” wine, because then we’d have two words–noble and profound–to define, rather than only one, thus muddying the waters even more. But a great Pinot Noir or Cabernet is where I typically (if rarely) find profundity. I have had white wines that were profound, but they weren’t from California. As much a fan as I am of great California Chardonnay, I wouldn’t call it profound. (I hope someone doesn’t plow through Wine Enthusiast’s database in search of one or two times I might have. If you do that, you have way too much time on your hands!) California Chardonnay can be sexy, opulent, dazzling, amazingly rich–but profound, it ain’t.

Last question, re: Salamone’s quote about that Savoie. If you like a wine, a lot, and it goes really good with the food you like, and it satisfies you in every way, but it’s “not a profound wine by any means,” should that bother you? Of course not. I’m reaching for an analogy, but the experience of a profound wine is like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing all those Rembrandts and El Grecos. That’s not an everyday experience. That’s an experience to heighten your senses and delight you with great art. But you can’t live in a museum, nor would you want to, I should think.

  1. STEVE!
    It’s the murkiness and imprecision of wine description that befuddles nearly everyone. “Profound,” though, with its Latin root meaning “deep” (profundus), and it’s accepted meanings of “intense” or “complex” isn’t that complicated. Profound wine is far easier to understand than Authentic Wine, for example.

    Now, profound wine writing–there’s your oxymoron.

  2. HOSEMASTER! Totally agree that “profound” is easier to understand than “authentic,” although “authentic” sounds good to consumers.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    I kind of like the use of the word provided that it’s not thrown around carelessly. In and of itself, it can express a sense of humility on the part of the critic in the presence of a great wine rather than trying to laser in on seventeen distinct tasting notes that he and he alone (yeah, it’s a RMP slam) can discern.

    I have a far greater problem with the continual use of “art” “artist” and “genius” to describe winemaking and winemakers. There are geniuses in the world, but they work at places like Fermilab and Cambridge. They don’t produce beverages. And as for art (and this applies to cooking/chefs too) nothing where quality is so utterly dependent upon raw materials can be considered art. A high craft is a much more apt analogy.

    Force Keller or Achatz to make a meal out of frozen vegetables and supermarket select beef and factory chickens, and they may be able to come up with a palatable dinner, but it will be far from great. Whereas giving a Picasso or Lichtenstein nothing more than a piece of copy paper and a #2 pencil will still produce transcendent greatness. That’s the difference between an artist and a craftsman.

  4. Mitch Cahoon says:

    Helen Keplinger recently described one of her wines as “Intellectual” which I found disheartening. I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough to enjoy or understand it

  5. “Profound” is the new “interesting”

  6. Not murky enough. If you call a wine precocious who can argue, but profound? Too ripe for diagreement.

  7. Mitch: I like the word “intellectual” with wine. To me, it means a wine that’s not overtly hedonistic or flattering. But something about it grabs you: the structure, the flintiness, the finish. You can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but you find yourself reaching for another glass. You have to think about it–that’s why it’s intellectual.

  8. “Indolent Jesuits” – what? Redolent of frankincense and myrrh perhaps, as they lay about their intellectual ivory towers, arguing the profundities of “genius” in art versus craft? Interesting.

  9. I was thinking more of them hanging out in the abbey, arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  10. Ron,

    As an alum of a certain Eagle Rock, California-based liberal arts college, was your linkage of “profound wine writing” and “oxymoron” in the same sentence a self deprecating pun?

    ~~ Bob

  11. redmond barry says:

    Wordsworth , I think, called poetry emotion recalled in tranquility. The answer to the question ” how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”: All of them. Same for Hosemasters ,though they would be more fun to watch.

  12. Wine, poetry, classic literature, and so many other inherently subjective tastes seem complicated only because we want them to be appear that way. A true haven for the verbose and the self-indulgent writer. Wine is no more smarter, intellectual or profound than the earth it comes from.

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