Wine Vocabulary and the Style Debate
Among the many debates that motivate wine lovers is the one that pits lovers of superripe, high pH, heavily extracted wines against those who prefer more structured, nuanced, higher acid wines. Some people will define the debate as "Traditionalists" vs "Parkerites". Others describe the debate as between "terroirists" vs "NewWorlders".
Either way you phrase the debate, and it is a complex one that touches on every element of grapegrowing, winemaker and marketing, it is in essence a debate over style.
Spurred on by an extraordinarily knowledgeable friend who has written about wine for many years, I began thinking about the vocabulary used in this debate over style. More specifically, I began to think about how descriptions of wines play into this debate. So, I went to the Wine Spectator reviews.
I wanted to see if particular words showed up more often in reviews. I looked at two words: "Structure" and "Ripe". Now, clearly these two words describe different things. "Structure" refers to the framework of a wine which is often a function of acid, tannin and alcohol. "Ripe" is a description of the character of the fruit component in the wine. While "structure" is really one of the pillars of a wine, the idea of a wine being ripe is a descriptioon of the character of a component of the wine. Yes, they are two different things. But, in the context of the debate over nuances vs. big, these two words seem appropriately fitting.
What did I find?
Looking at 2,538 California Cabernets or Cab Blends that were awarded 90 points or higher by the Wine Spectator the following was found:
"Structure" was used in the written description in 6% of these wines
"Ripe" was used in the written description in 41% of these wines
What does this mean? It’s hard to say without doing significantly more digging. For example, I should find out how often "Ripe" is used for wines awarded 80 points or less. I should do the same research for wines from other growing regions. And I should look into the use of other words.
However, I can go out on a limb and offer some suggestions as to what this means. The Wine Spectator clearly believes "Ripe" is a word that is is more useful in helping to describe a good wine than is "structure". Also, the world "Structure" is not a noun that the Wine Spectator believes is useful in helping to describe the character of a wine. These conclusions shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed the evolution of California Cabernet. Over the years, winemakers have chosen to pick grapes later, getting riper fruit. The appearance of phyloxera resulted in the replanting of vineyards that in turn led to new, unfamiliar ways of dealing with viticulture in California that naturally led to riper wines. U.S. wine critics have promoted riper wines. Distributors, sales people, retailers, restauratuers, marketers and winemakers have followed the lead of the critics.
None of this of course means the wines are "better" for being riper. That’s subjective. However, riper wines do have objective consequences. It will be interesting to see how the concept of aging wine and mature wines play into the definition of "great" in the future as it is learned that riper wines don’t age into the ethereal wines that the traditionalists have loved for decades.