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The Ascent of Elegance

By Karen MacNeil
December 22, 2017

Sometimes a word begins to creep ever more insistently into the wine zeitgeist. It’s happening now. The word is elegance.

I’ve written before about elegance in wine, but the topic continues to intrigue me—perhaps because like the words balance and minerality (and famously like the word pornography), elegance is easier to recognize than define. The dictionary gives the synonyms: grace, style, refinement. But how do we identify those qualities in wine?

From my perspective, elegance is never about specific aromas or flavors. Lemon, for example, is categorically no more or less elegant than, say, rotting leaves. Instead, elegance is concerned with how flavors are expressed. If you anthropomorphized a chardonnay, would it be more like Audrey Hepburn or Kim Kardashian? Beethoven or Rap music? A Porsche or a Hummer?

Elegant wines have a certain subtlety about them. They are quietly sublime. You often have to “listen in” carefully to taste what they have to say. This doesn’t mean the wine is weak or wishy washy. The most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced is how a wine that’s intense and powerful when young, can be transmogrified by age to become superbly  elegant.

There’s an undeniable mystery to all this, an unpredictability, and an inability to quantify. Which is perhaps one reason why winemakers don’t like to use words like elegant. Yet, sometimes even they are left with no other way to describe what they are trying to achieve. This past fall, in the middle of her 43rd harvest, Cathy Corison of Corison winery in the Napa Valley told me, “For my whole winemaking life, I’ve been chasing the intersection of power and elegance in cabernet sauvignon.”

No one can say exactly where elegance in wine comes from. Certainly, the winemaker must use restraint in winemaking, since a winemaker can ruin all hope for elegance to “happen.” Overripe grapes, overwrought winemaking, over extraction, over-oaking… they’re all too over the top, which is why so many of us want to be over it already. But careful winemaking alone is not enough. Because elegant wines also possess a spark, a life force, a kinetic vitality that can be spellbinding.

And who knows where that comes from?