Noble Rot's Lexicon for Talking About Wine
"Although putting wine into words is still frequently frustrating, we've settled on a lexicon to try to describe it without eye-rolling pomp."
Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew co-founded Noble Rot magazine in 2013, and two restaurants of the same name that opened in 2015 and 2020. The following is an excerpt from their new book Noble Rot: Wine from Another Galaxy published by Quadrille, 2021.
"Words of nuance, words of skill. And words of romance are a thrill. Words are stupid, words are fun. Words can put you on the run." —'Wordy Rappinghood', Tom Tom Club
In the first issue of Noble Rot magazine, we asked whether writing about wine was as futile as writing about music, something Frank Zappa once likened to "dancing about architecture." Countless bottles and adjectives later, and although putting wine into words is still frequently frustrating, we've settled on a lexicon to try to describe it without eye-rolling pomp. But let's get something straight: breaking a wine down into subjective lists of fruit, vegetable, and mineral aromas that will change over minutes in the glass, let alone years in the cellar, is as insightful as awarding it a score out of 100 points. It's like describing a Francis Bacon by only referring to the different colors on the canvas, or talking about a Thom Yorke record by only identifying the individual synthesizers, guitars, and effects units used in the studio. If any of your friends did that, you'd disown them. But we need the tools to do the job justice: here's our lexicon of usefulness.
EnergyWhether young Muscadet or 200-year-old Madeira, good wine has energy. The greatest, such as those from Burgundy's Romanee-Conti or Le Montrachet, often have such a lot of it that it has a visceral effect, like the feeling you get in the diaphragm from sub-bass when next to a nightclub sound system, or a chord-change in a song that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Other words: vitality, exuberance, life.
TextureAside from its aroma and flavor, which both change over time, a wine can also be defined by its texture and shape in your mouth. French is more adept at capturing this than English, where wine can be described as being gras (fat), droit (direct), or carré (blocky), having a charpente (a frame), or tannins that are sec (dry), dur (hard), fondu (melted), or velouté (velvety). Other words: oily, lean, plush, opulent, sinewy, svelte, linear, jagged, round — to name but a few.
HarmonyAlongside energy and texture, harmony is wine's other most important trait. Harmoniousness means that all elements are perfectly aligned and the wine feels effortless. Rather than just the state of being balanced, think of harmony like the connectedness of musical notes in a timeless melody.
FreshnessA wine's acidity has most to do with how fresh it feels, alongside other considerations such as salinity, precision, elegance, tension, and purity. Without freshness a wine is clumsy and dead. Minerality is a controversial word as it can lead drinkers to presume, incorrectly, that the vines take mineral nutrients from the soil. Rather than referring to a scientific process, we use it to describe wine's non-fruit/vegetative components, such as the aromas of hot bricks or pavement after a rain shower, or the taste of crushed rock or slate. Such mineral-esque sensations, when allied with acidity, freshen the feeling of a wine in the mouth.
LayersDo you have a favorite film wherein you notice something new every time you watch it? 1985 Ponsot Clos de la Roche is like that: you find something fresh in a different bandwidth each time you put your nose back in the glass. Aromatic complexity is something that usually develops with age; the most complex wines of all are famously described as having a kaleidoscopic peacock's tail of flavor on their finish. Other words: nuance, detail, complexity, dimensions.
TasteThe first time you taste a mature red Burgundy or Nothern Rhône Syrah that balances the expected fresh fruit flavors with savory and umami notes is an eye-opening moment. Think about its sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and ripeness.
OriginalityGreat wine is so unpredictable and brilliant that it always begs the question: how can this be made just from grapes? The magnificent shock of an extraordinary perfume — just like a lyrical turn of phrase in a song, or a wonder goal — is what keeps us coming back for more. Other words: chasing the dragon.
Reprinted with permission from Wine from Another Galaxy by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, copyright © 2021. Published by Quadrille Publishing Ltd. Buy your own copy at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Powells.com, IndieBound.org, or any online bookseller of your choice.