Elegance is one of the most important aesthetic properties of a wine. It is almost always a marker of superior quality although it gets overused in describing very ordinary wines which are seldom elegant.
But what exactly is elegance? In ordinary language “elegant” is synonymous with “graceful” or “refined”. But that doesn’t help us define it unless we then define “graceful” and “refined”.
“Elegance” is one of Matt Kramer’s essential wine words. He writes:
I would submit that anything deserving of the description (and approbation) of “elegant” must display restraint. In a wine we must sense that there’s more to come, depths that are somehow being metered out to us, layer after layer. Tannins must be also restrained. (How often do we see the descriptor “silky” applied to such restrained tannins? Surely that word suggests elegance in a way that, say, “burlap” does not.)
A certain sense of precision and taste clarity is, I believe, inherent in wines of elegance.
Some of Kramer’s attempt at a definition doesn’t quite ring true. There are many wines that show restraint that are not elegant. But when he writes “depths that are somehow being metered out to us” he is on the right track. Elegant wines don’t reveal everything all at once. They evolve. But a wine might evolve on the palate showing many stages yet still be clumsy. Many powerful or rustic wines evolve in interesting ways without being elegant. Although it’s true that elegant wines can’t have grippy or green tannins, large, massively tannic wines can be elegant if the tannins are well-integrated and balanced with other components. “Precision” and “taste clarity” seem to be true of elegant wines, but it seems to me they don’t define elegance but come along for the ride. Quality wines often are elegant and precise but one doesn’t define the other.
Former wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast Steve Heimoff defined elegant wines as silky, balanced, and complex. But that describes almost any well-made Pinot Noir. I wouldn’t describe great Amarone or classed Bordeaux as silky but some are elegant.
Here is my attempt to get clear on this concept. My definition is a bit pedantic. I still haven’t found a way to express this with style.
It goes without saying that elegant wines must be balanced. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition since many balanced wines are not elegant.
The rest of the criteria for elegance in wine are a function of the perceived movement on the palate. The movement of elegant wines has five characteristics:
1. Deliberate, not racy. The changes the wine goes through on the palate do not feel rushed. If the stages accelerate or decelerate, the change of pace is deliberate.
2. Medium plus frequency of variation. Elegant wines are neither static nor kinetic but they have a degree of complexity in their evolution.
3. Subtle variation. Elegant wines are not linear but neither are they expansive or compressed. They are characterized by many small changes.
4. Transitions between stages are smooth and gradual rather than abrupt. This is probably the most important condition. Abrupt changes feel clumsy.
5. Tension is low to moderate. The various structural components of the wine do not offer resistance to each other. The structural components all evolve at a similar pace.
Elegance in my view is all about the pace of variation, the degree of variation, and the gradient of the transitions.