Vulgar pleasures

One of the words that is most overused in the wine trade’s lexicon is elegant”. In the wine industry, elegance is considered a virtue, along with balance and harmony.

It’s the dominant aesthetic position in our industry: wines should be balanced, elegant and harmonious, not exaggerated, vulgar or extreme. Some wines are indeed elegant, but the word is mainly used as a more sophisticated version of interesting” - a term we use when we can’t think of something interesting to say. 

So many of the characteristics that define good wine in distinction to synthetically produced soft drinks are not elegant. In fact, they are rebarbative: tannins, bitterness, acidity, brett, reduction, a kind of inhospitable dryness that can be off-putting for those unaccustomed to wine. Anyone who has stopped drinking wine for a while and then dives back in with a dry German Riesling knows exactly what I mean. Wine can be physically shocking. 

As a polite evasion, elegance is now used to describe a wine that seems to tick all the orthodox boxes. It has acidity, but not too much; tannins, but not too much; fruit, but not too much; and alcohol, but not too much. It’s the tasting note equivalent of matches well with red meats, pasta and cheeses”. 

There’s been a lot of chatter about Parker over the years, but I’ve always admired one aspect of his work: he has a great palate that is much more interested in vulgar amplitude than little-black-dress elegance in wines. I don’t always agree with him, but I admire his individuality. His recent retirement marks the end of an era of a particular style of winemaking.

As he has withdrawn from the scene, we have witnessed Newton’s third law applied to wine: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every Parkerised fruit bomb from Napa, there’s now a Feiringed Loire Cabernet Franc or a Legeroned Saperavi. This diversity is overwhelmingly positive, and the wine world is probably more diverse and colourful than it’s ever been. However, we shouldn’t forget that the methodology of the natural winemaker is as open to caricature as winemakers Parkerising their Merlot. 

Just as there were many sticky, plodding, globular reds in the pseudo-Parker mould, now there are many generically semi-carbonic and whole-bunch-fermented wines with low alcohol and less flavour. 

The exciting news for contrarians like me – who are never content and just want to cause trouble – is that wildness and outrageousness lurk just beyond the horizon. There’s an amazing resurgence of hot-climate grape varieties coming through the ranks, as different from Californian Cabernet and Loire Chenin Blanc as they are from each other. It started in southern Italy with Primitivo, about as far away from fashionable Pinot Noir as you can get. All across the old Mediterranean winelands we are starting to see the reassertion of rusticity, wildness, vulgarity and heft.

On my tasting table recently have been increasing numbers of what I consider rude” grapes, such as Aglianico, as far away from the Jacques Néauport style as you could want, with its wonderful, coarsely hewn tannins, fierce acidity and pungent, muscular flavours.

Like most fashions, it’s hard to see them dispassionately when you’re in the middle of them. But I wonder whether we will look back on this era of winemaking and see its samey elegance as tending towards caricature, just as we look back on the shoulder-pad wines of Parker’s era. Perhaps, as with brogues worn without socks, we will wonder what we were thinking. Happily, there’s always a new trend on the horizon. Bring back socks, and bring on the Taurasi.

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