In an attempt to explore the concept of elegance in wine, a tasting was co-organised by the Elgin Valley Wine Guild and Jörg Pfützner of Fine Wine Events in July. The goal of the evening, punted as the Elegantly Elgin Event, was to demonstrate that the Elgin growers’ association with elegance is more than just alliteration. “The Valley’s unique trademark is classic wines, with elegance, structure and ageing potential” – a mission statement scrutinised in a tasting that saw Elgin wines go up against some of the world’s fi nest.
To provide context to the dialectic of elegance, the evening was opened with a statement that also served as the final conclusion: that elegance can’t be defined.
Some attendees felt it was an overused term, too often used at the discretion of individuals’ subjective associations with it. The definition of elegance is in itself an oxymoron. As was casually observed, not everyone finds Sophia Loren elegant, while others would beg to differ… Hume argues, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” The same argument applies to abstract cousins, like elegance. The whole model of a tasting investigating the concept of elegance is therefore flawed – but fruitless as the inquiry might be, considering the line-up of wines that were sourced to illustrate the point, it was nonetheless an incredibly rewarding exercise.
Elegantly Elgin: But is it really?
Situated on a plateau and surrounded by mountains, the Elgin Valley, with its diversity of people, soil and climate, has the perfect combination of factors to create elegant wines, proposed Shannon Vineyards’ James Downes. A relatively young ward, Oak Valley established the first vineyards in the 1980s and, with more following suit, Elgin was officially declared a wine production ward in 1990. Today the valley lays claim to some of SA’s finest wine producers: Oak Valley, Paul Cluver and Iona being the bigger players, with boutique wineries like Catherine Marshall Wines adding diversity. In addition, some well-established wineries such as Neil Ellis and Thelema also source grapes from certain vineyard sites in the valley. The range of accolades accumulated by wineries further suggests that the Elgin growers are indeed producing decent wines. But are they elegant?
On the issue of wine, Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen, proprietor of Oak Valley, offered that he associates ‘freshness’ with elegance (the former being a term used without much disagreement to describe the wines from.the Elgin Valley). Others saw low alcohol by volume as a non-negotiable quality of an elegant wine. “Less is more”, “not showy” and “balanced” were other definitions.
My two cents on the matter is that an.elegant wine isn’t showy but it steals the show. It is the delicate wine that is similarly assertive in a line-up of wines. It will show undeniable symmetry of its components and, although it isn’t simple, an elegant wine offers remarkable drinkability.
Considering the Latin origin of the word elegance, elegans – which means ‘discriminating’ – a wine also reflects the prerogative of the winemaker. To create an elegant wine, the winemaker should show restraint in the oaking regime, favour early picking and be pedantic in matters such as berry sorting and site selection. Creators of elegance understand that, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away,” to quote French writer Antoine de.Saint-Exupéry.
But if so-called wine experts can’t agree, where does this rather “woolly” debate (as was dryly noted by one fellow.observer) leave the consumer?
Find concrete examples of elegance in other forms of life and apply it to wine, suggested Michael Power, from Investec, who addressed the crowd during the second leg of the evening. The insightful comments from this bona fide punter weren’t lost on me and, acknowledging Power’s articulacy, I found a way to link my observations of the wines with his understanding of the subject.
2009 Paul Cluver Wagon Trail CWG Chardonnay
2009 Thelema Sutherland Chardonnay
2007 Domaine Raveneau Chablis Montée de Tonnerre
“Words like polished, symmetry, culture and grace,” are (more) appropriate associations with elegance, Power suggested, and nowhere were these more applicable than in this line-up of Chardonnays. This trio of wines plainly demonstrated how ungracious buttery, fat Chardonnays are. Instead, this line-up exemplified that appeal takes the form of freshness (in the case of the Thelema), refinement (in the Paul Cluver) and layer upon layer of intrigue and harmonious integration in the shape.of the Chablis.
2007 Oak Valley OV
2005 Smith Haut Latte Blanc
2005 Pape Clément Blanc
Tasted before the line-up of Chardonnays, the Bordeaux-style white.blends, in hindsight, proved not elegant at all. Here the Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2005 was too disproportionate to be considered elegant. The wine had a bitter finish,.which further detracted from its.appeal. The Pape Clément Blanc 2005, initially attractive on the nose, fell short on the palate, while the Oak.Valley OV 2007, which many thought was the most pleasing in.the line-up, lacked strength – an insubstantial character that shouldn’t be.confused with elegance.
2003 Iona Sauvignon Blanc
2008 Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnés
2009 Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnés
It is perhaps suitable to contemplate the role varietal plays in elegance. Can Sauvignon Blanc be elegant? Some might argue that the inherent acidity of the varietal is too crass to make a gracious wine and, too often, Sauvignon Blancs can be too one-dimensional to be engaging – an elegant wine shouldn’t be simple. In this category, Iona 2003 illustrated the variety’s ability at least to age with some grace, and, compared with Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnés 2008 and 2009, the general observation was that maturation accompanies grace in this instance. The Cotat Sancerre 2009 did not rank high in terms of elegance, due to its high alcohol and residual sugar content. The 2008 showed more depth, and it had some intriguing aromatics, but was it elegant? Comments from the table suggested it wasn’t.
Catherine Marshall Eleven Barrels Pinot Noir 2009
2005 J M Fourrier Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru “Combe aux Moines”
1999 Dominique Laurent Mazis-Chambertin Cuvée A Grand Cru
Naturally, elegance can be likened to certain women, observed Power, “Think of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.” Feminine descriptors are particularly prominent in the Pinot Noir category. With this variety generally made in a light- to medium-bodied style, it is also the class that individuals most readily associate with the term elegance. For many, there is no disputing the fact: Pinot is elegant. “Can Shiraz be elegant? Compared to Pinot, maybe not – but it is about the context,” said organiser Pfützner. To illustrate the point, Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir 2009 was pitched against a Burgundy Premier Cru and, just to make the competition completely unfair, a 1999 Grand Cru from Dominique Laurent Mazis-Chambertin.
2007 Arumdale Shiraz
2007 A Clape Cornas
2002 Torbreck Descendant
In this line-up, the Elgin Pinot Noir couldn’t match the complexity and structure of the Burgundies and, in terms of elegance, it was the Premier Cru that best captured this term with its delicate structure but powerful mouthfeel. That clichéd ‘fist in a velvet glove’ can apply here, although Power’s take on this is “that scene in Roman Holiday where Audrey smacks a man over the head with a guitar. She did it with such elegance.”
In his speech, Power referred to words that attempt to describe the word elegance, but which, by means of their excessiveness, fall short. Words like “magnificent”, “luscious”, “grandeur”, “these are too big, too lush, too grand,” he argued. Not unlike the Torbreck Descendant 2002, which, in typical Barossa Valley style, appeared “too big, too lush and too grand” compared to the more delicate A Clape Cornas 2007. The local Arumdale Shiraz 2007 illustrated a muchagreed point of avoiding an excess of oak if elegance is to be achieved. As winemaker Cathy Marshall observed, “Oak should be used to accentuate, not dominate the wine.”
2007 Shannon Mount Bullet
2005 Ferrand Lartigue Grand Cru Classe Saint-Émilion
2008 Bellefont-Belcier Grand Cru Classe Saint-Émilion
Lest you think power can’t be equated with elegance, Power argues, “The Concorde, although in its final analysis it didn’t work, is a remarkable example of elegance in the everyday world,” a statement best applicable to the concluding lineup of Bordeauxstyled wines. Some might disagree with the statement that the Concorde, a potent piece of aircraftsmanship, epitomises elegance, and the same applies to the trio of wines in this final instance. Shannon Mount Bullet Merlot 2007, Ferrand Lartigue Grand Cru Classe SaintÉmilion 2005 and BellefontBelcier Grand Cru Classe SaintÉmilion 2008 are powerful, wellstructured wines, but how does this translate into elegance? There’s a hint of delicacy in the fine tannins of the BellefontBelcier, but the markedly more powerful Shannon Mount Bullet is equally alluring – which perhaps illustrates that the term elegance isn’t the holy grail of sensory appreciation.
But is it elegant?
Power captured the reality of the Elgin growers in his closing paragraph. Referring to Darwin’s Origin of the Species, he postulated that elegance is an everevolving concept. As Elgin winemakers grow in terms of winemaking and viticultural knowledge, as the vines become of age and settle into the ebb and flow of climatic changes and as new sites are explored and developed, the Elgin growers will perhaps, eventually, rightfully lay claim to this elusive term. As it stands now, “Endless forms most beautiful and mostwonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Michael Power is a strategist at Investec Asset Management. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town and a master’s in international business and law from the Fletcher School,
Tufts University. Read more of his musings on his blog: http://thoughtsofpower.wordpress.com/.
Tagged Wineries & Cellars