A few weeks ago I had a small soirée with friends. Virtually everyone that attended is a serious and very knowledgeable wine collector (or is the other half of a collector) and are people that I have had the great pleasure to know and taste wine with over the course of years. There were eighteen of us in total and because our tasting events tend to be on the structured and academic side, it was a blast to just take an evening and socialize. Enjoying great wine and good food along with personal and pleasurable conversation was a perfect way to usher in the summer season.
Of course collectors love to share wine with other collectors so the wines brought by everyone were just off the hook. Some of the greatest, from California, Italy, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, Champagne, and Germany, many from magnum, were all well represented. Needless to say, we had far too much wine but every drop poured was of very high caliber and delicious.
I opened a magnum of Château Rauzan-Gassies, 1995, Second Growth Bordeaux from the appellation of Margaux. It was intentionally nothing particularly spectacular or anything that would demand, or even request, a lot of your attention. However, I found myself drawn to it, always coming back to this wine after sampling other great wines that were opened. The wine was drinking very well and a number of people throughout the evening commented that they would be happy to drink this wine every day. I felt the same and later asked myself what it was that we saw in this wine.
I believe we were enchanted by this wine because of its elegance. Do you remember the forties? Yeah, me neither, as I wasn’t yet on the planet, but the 1940s are often thought of as an elegant era. Fashion in ‘40s clothing is today still regarded as the epitome of elegance, what with its beautiful and rich fabrics, understated colors, sleek lines, and classiness. In the world of autos, a mid-fifties Rolls Royce Silver Cloud I with Park Ward or James Young coachwork was held out as being exemplary of elegance and good taste. People like Jacqueline Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Catherine Deneuve, plus other worldly and Hollywood personas, once defined elegance in our society. None of these examples could be considered as over the top, gauche, or maladroit; they were all considered elegant.
Still, the very word, elegance, is not easy to define or clearly understand when it comes to wine, and seems almost inapposite in this day and age. The Rauzan-Gassies reminded me of older vintage Bordeaux but this wine was not rustic or backward as some of them can be, but rather, it was a contrast to such style. Most wine experts posit that the post-modern era of Bordeaux began after the 1982 vintage, which was, and still is in many cases, a remarkable vintage. Some châteaux are, not surprisingly, slow to change and so they tend to hang on to older winemaking techniques, using tried and true equipment and processes. From 1982 and prior, Bordeaux produced what the British would call a proper ‘claret’ and I would consider this wine as such. It’s the difference between Rachmaninoff and Liberace sitting down in front of a Steinway Concert Grand. Both performed at the top of their game but one played with complete mastery and precision without overplaying, and the other was competent but extremely flamboyant and flashy.
The term elegance, however, is very subjective and can be a difficult wine descriptor to grasp, but begs to be explored nevertheless. One of the most often overlooked attributes of wine is its texture. We tend to naturally focus on aromas and flavors but texture is tremendously important because it has everything to do with mouthfeel and it also informs about alcohol and glycerol contents. Texture can tell us about wine that has a lot of extraction, which can feel big and thick on the palate, or low extraction that creates wine that is thin or light. Texture is often presented as body, however, body is mostly related to the weight on the palate, whether it is full, medium, or light as the case may be. Texture goes to a deeper level than weight alone because it can change in your mouth, both before and after swallowing, but an elegant wine never seems big or weighty.
Extraction refers to the amount of grape matter, consisting mostly of water, fruit, and phenolic compounds such as anthocyanin for color and tannins for structure that gets transferred to the wine during the crushing and maceration process; maceration being the process of combining the grapes’ components and allowing the grapes’ juice, skin, seeds, and stems, if used, to come into contact and spend time with all the other elements. In addition to adding depth of flavor, complexity, and color, maceration contributes to a finished wine’s density, body, and texture.
The trend of using overly ripe grapes creates high alcohol wine because extreme ripeness, while lowering acidity (often not a positive attribute), produces higher sugar levels in grapes, which then get converted into alcohol during fermentation. This style of wine contributes to the level of glycerol present, resulting in a big, or heavy weight on the palate. Also, to add insult to injury, the continuing prevalence of employing reverse osmosis and other technologies helps to create wines that are inching ever closer to becoming pudding. Without need for further explanation, overly ripe grapes and over-extraction usually creates big full-bodied wines with high alcohol and a lot of density – in other words a wine that we consider to be a fruit bomb.
Symmetry in wine is another concept that goes beyond merely balance and it contributes to elegance. Low notes do not over-power high notes and visa versa. Acidity, tannins, alcohol, and fruit must not just be balanced but also seamless and exist in complete harmony together; throughout, everything is linear with no bumps in the road, so to speak. Symmetry is not easy to achieve and, even with the best wines in the world, is very often elusive. Also part of finding symmetry in wine has much to do with drinking it at precisely the right time and the right temperature, both elements of which, can and do change very quickly.
So here’s my take on elegant wine: these are often lighter to medium-bodied, very balanced and flavorful, possess ideal symmetry, can have complexity without requiring that you commit yourself to a long, drawn out intellectual exercise, and even if they are not overly ripe or extracted, or huge on the palate, they can still have a long finish, the alcohol content is usually lower (at 11 ½ to 12 ½ %) than so many of the wines being made these days, and an elegant wine will pair very well with many dishes. These wines are dialed back by many magnitudes compared to the huge wines coming out of California, Washington, and other New World regions. There, it seems, the race is on to make wine that can be consumed with a fork, and I’m not saying there’s not necessarily a place for that as wineries adapt to the ever-changing tastes of market demand, but just that there is a huge contrast of styles. However, in this world of faster, bigger, more is better, it’s truly a pleasure to enjoy something elegant and be reminded of nuance, to stop and smell the roses in life.
Some would say that using the term is pretentious and that so much vernacular created by wine critics is magniloquent. I would argue that the reference to elegance has a precise meaning within the framework of wine and is a useful, if not often applicable, wine descriptor. Besides some Bordeaux, I have also found a number of wines from Burgundy and Champagne that fall into this much more rarefied category, and I hope that you too discover some elegance in your journey with wine. Elegant wine is both fascinating and rewarding.
Photo: PAR-TAY – a great evening of wines from great friends!