Tim James: Elegance in wine

By , 14 November 2022



Finding the right words to describe a wine is not always easy.

The notion of elegance came up in a bit of correspondence about Christian Eedes’s review of Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2020. One of Christian’s points was that the 2020 is less elegant than the 2019, at least partly because of its higher alcohol level. I remarked that I didn’t think that elegance is a concept that applies to those wines: however magnificent they may be, elegant is not the right adjective.

It is, of course, basically yet another of the subjective (arguably meaningless) adjectives widely used for wine descriptions. Every year when I proofread the Platter’s Guide (not at all the best way to appreciate its achievement, by the way), what seems to me the misuse of “elegant” is one of the greater irritants. (A more recent one is people believing that “pristine” means “pure”.) Too often, it seems to me, a word that could be a useful descriptor has joined the band of words that indicate little more than the taster’s admiration for the wine – meaning that it’s very nice. It’s a pretty fervent wish of mine that Platter’s (like Christian, for example, and Jancis Robinson) would invariably note a wine’s alcohol level – now, it’s a matter left up to the Platter taster’s discretion. Not only would it be generally useful at a time when many wine-drinkers are extremely conscious of their alcohol intake, but it would put such descriptors as “elegant” into context – and help those like me to understand that this 15% cab might indeed be excellent but is more than unlikely to be what I’d consider elegant.

But, as I say, others would disagree. When I thought of writing something about elegance in wine I googled that phrase. The first article I was offered was a wholly useful one by Tony Love in the Australian Halliday Wine Companion. If you want a comprehensive overview of the various connotations of the word as a wine-descriptor, have a look – and realise that unless you know the aesthetics of the person using it, you can have no idea what they mean by invoking the word.

For the majority, though, elegant does necessarily imply a degree of restraint, and of balance – but a balance with a certain lightness of proportion. As it should. One can have a big, even massive wine that’s poised and with everything in harmony, but to me its size militates against a claim of elegance (that Black Label Pinotage, for example). Same with people: put Arnold Schwarzenegger in a beautiful tuxedo or Dolly Parton in a finely cut, restrained gown; they might be very smart, or at a pinch described as elegantly dressed, but the totality would not be elegant. Same with someone laden with ermine and velvet and jewels and with a flashy crown: too much display, splendour and calculated impressiveness for elegance. Arguably. And note that I don’t think those extreme examples are fair comparisons for Black Label!

On the other hand, restraint, even refined austerity, and slimness of proportion is not sufficient by itself. I can’t think that a charming, lightweight cinsault could qualify as elegant. One needs sufficient weight, substance and presence, as well as “quality”. That cinsault is perhaps, to make another human comparison, like a slim, attractive young person in torn jeans and t-shirt. Nice, but not elegant. Oh dear, and I’m now trying to evade the possible class-snobbery analogy that elegance might seem to involve, but I’m thinking that, going back to showy bigness, however admirable Dolly Parton is (and from what I know of her she is an admirable person as well as talented and hard-working), she’s not exactly … classy? (That’s another Platter’s word I dislike, actually.)

Stop there, perhaps. There are, of course, many examples of genuine elegance in Cape wine, more whites than reds, I’d say (lots of new-wave, fresh and stony chenins), because more of the ambitious reds are still overdone, with too much oak, and ripeness giving power and sweetness. But I could easily adduce a producer I recently visited, one I increasingly admire: Noble Hill in Simonberg-Paarl (I wrote about the estate a few years back, and the continuous improvement being made by Kristopher Tillery in vineyard and cellar), and there’s a wine there that, in particular, illustrates what I’m talking about – though all Kristopher’s wines do, to some degree.

The Noble Hill Estate Reserve 2020 is a blend of cab with merlot, cab franc & petit verdot. It’s in the upper echelons of such blends here (I wouldn’t suggest that it leads the pack) but what makes it unusual in that cohort is that it has just 13% alcohol, which doesn’t manifest with any sort of weakness or under-ripe vegetalness (a touch herbal, perhaps, but cab should be that). There’s a genuine modesty to it (and the price is extremely modest too, about R200). Importantly (also quite rare in the category), it is properly dry. There’s a harmony between fruit, cedary spice and firmness of structure. Not everyone might enjoy it as much as I do, but I’d argue quite fiercely with anyone who wouldn’t call it elegant.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


3 comment(s)

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    Kristopher Tillery | 16 November 2022

    Hi, I’m really appreciative of your comments about the Noble Hill Estate Reserve. You’re correct that we’re aiming for a lean, elegant style with lower alcohol and less overt extraction. I think actual alcohol and perhaps Total SO2 would be great additions to the Platter’s Guide listings!

    Pieter de klerk | 15 November 2022

    Good point, Tim, that Platter’s should include alcohol levels. It’s something that has become so much more important now than in the first decade or two of the guide and they need to move with the times. I actually think it would have a very positive effect on sales, too.

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