It’s impossible for anyone who writes, professionally or otherwise, to not feel strongly about words. Blind tastings are one thing. But could anything be less inviting than a mute tasting, with everyone shuffling in and out as silently as Trappist monks?
With wine, words are disproportionately powerful, as otherwise our respective experiences of taste would forever be isolated and soundless. Strange as it sounds, we really don’t know what a wine tastes like until we put words to it.
All of which brings me to the idea of underused words in wine today. As someone who for decades has recommended wines to readers, I know all too well which words will resonate. You can never go wrong portraying a wine as rich, luscious, intense, mouthfilling and dense, among many other descriptors.
I say this with no cynicism or criticism, implicit or otherwise. I’ve used those very words hundreds of times over the years, with the conscious awareness that they excite and invite. Of course, the wines to which they are applied must have those qualities.
Yet those very same words, however accurately applied, are also a bit of a trap. Precisely because they do excite and invite, other equally valuable—maybe even more valuable—words get underused or even fall by the wayside altogether.
Take "subtle," for example. I once queried a friend of mine who is in what I call the money business. He knows words well enough, but he prefers numbers. Data. Quantification.
I asked him, "What does the word ‘subtle’ signify to you?" He replied, "When I hear ‘subtle,’ I think: ‘weak, thin, light.’"
This is a pity. Subtle is, for me, one of the most underused positive words in the wine-tasting vocabulary. It signals a taster’s recognition and acknowledgement that power is not everything in wine, that shadings and nuance carry weight and are not just valuable but essential to genuine refinement in wine.
Which would you rather have? A subtle Barolo? Or a powerful one? The two are not mutually exclusive, but the way those words are perceived today they are very nearly so.
Words do matter. Sometimes we need to refresh our vocabularies. For example, I’ve increasingly come to prefer the concept of “surprise” to describe a wine that I previously would have called “original.”
Is this mere semantics? Yes and no. At one level, sure it is; I’m substituting one term for another. But at another level, it’s more than semantic.
Why “surprise”? Because it underscores, I believe, precisely what it is that makes a wine seem original to us. We may or may not like the surprise we’re getting, the disruption of our expectation. After all, being “original” doesn’t automatically make a wine good or great (think orange wines).
Another underused—and desirable—word is “harmonious.” It might seem to be synonymous with the much more commonly used term "balance," yet I think it’s substantively different. Semantics yet again? Maybe. But hear me out.
Harmonious is a more encompassing notion. Fine wines are more than simply balanced. That’s just the beginning. Gyroscopes, after all, do more than keep something upright by offsetting up from down. They also are constantly addressing and compensating for forces from side to side.
Keep in mind that with wine all sorts of forces converge in our taste impression: tannins, acidity, sweetness, fruitiness, fragrance, aftertaste and so forth. Balance hardly captures the necessary and desirable equilibrium.
Indeed, there really is no such thing as balance, as it’s conventionally understood. "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion," observed the philosopher Francis Bacon. Harmoniousness is the key. It’s a more encompassing, gyroscopic ideal than just balance.
If you think about all of the wines that you consider, regardless of style, to be "great," I can almost guarantee you that you will conclude that they are harmonious, never mind whether the wine is as powerful as a Vintage Port or as butterfly-fragile as a Muscadet.
Words do matter. I do like, by the way, some words that are relatively new to the contemporary tasting vocabulary and are increasingly seen, such as “precision” and “energetic.” They connote useful and desirable qualities even if, in the case of energetic, it’s more evocative than precise. (I assume, perhaps wrongly, that wines of “energy” always have a bright, refreshing acidity.)
And yourself? Are there wine words you would like to see embraced, or discarded? Words that should be used but aren’t? Or are overused? Or underappreciated?
"All I know is what I have words for," said the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Got words?