The Real Meaning of Funk

unconventionalDanny Chau’s article in Punch entitled “Let’s Talk About Funky” covers the bases of this ubiquitous descriptor rather well.

With the explosion of natural wine has arrived a thirst for surprise—something that makes the eyes bulge and the nose shrivel—a deviation from established wine norms, which often gets lumped into the “funky” descriptor. But what is funky, and to whom?

The phenomenon we call “funk” has been around for some time, long before natural wine was a thing. And the causes of these “off” flavors are well known.

Funk can come from brettanomyces, the strain of yeast that can produce flavors as diverse as plum and barnyard; it can be the result of reduction, the natural accumulation of sulfur compounds that, at best, contribute a savory weight and, at worst, mustiness (a “poopy” element, as Amdur says); it can be the result of volatile acidity, which can bring out sharper fruit flavors while en route to vinegar.

Some of the classic flavor profiles of the wine world—the bacon fat of Northern Rhone Syrah, the mushroom, truffle, or barnyard aromas in some Burgundian Pinot Noir, the balsamic note in old Barolo—all have their origins in these so called “wine faults” that in modest amounts make wine interesting. I suppose now we can add the cidery aroma that lurks in the background (or foreground) of many natural wines. But these aroma profiles are familiar. Chau keeps reaching for a meaning of “funk” that is not reducible to these conventional aromas.

It can also present as an ethos, a wine made with a character and narrative that stray off the beaten path. Funk is all of those things in a constant give-and-take, and perhaps that’s the problem. “I think it’s a little bit of a monster that we’ve created,” Amdur says. “It’s so indeterminate of what we mean when we say it….The expression of funk, then, becomes a moving target, mutable in both intention and perception.

Well yes but this is as it should be. It’s not a problem. Wine to remain interesting must always escape the categories we create for it. Wine when allowed to flourish without too many conventional constraints is capable of producing constant variation and must always be one step ahead of our ability to describe it. If “funk” becomes so determinate that we know exactly what we mean by it, it will cease to be an interesting descriptor.

In other words, we need a word that expresses what should be a common experience among wine tasters—“What the hell is that?” For better or worse, the term “funk” seems to play that role.

So I was a bit puzzled by Chou’s conclusion:

And when funk becomes an increasingly prevalent quality, it risks flattening the range of delight and becoming a certain inverse of funky: boring.

Well yes if it becomes associated only with conventional aroma descriptions or becomes an identifiable “quality.” If it shows up on the aroma wheel along with a reference standard, then, it will be boring.

So let’s not define “funk” except as a deviation from established wine norms.

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