Finessing Finesse – An Odd Tasting Term

Good wine’s march out from its past limited to the French classics and a few un-French fortifieds has also run parallel with changes in the terms wine tasters use to describe and analyse wine.  Tasting terms are notoriously imprecise of course.  It is de rigeur for leading professional tasters to openly declare the whole thing is personal and subjective and yet base their integrity on publishing tasting notes which aim to set the criteria, in the absence of the actual wine, by which someone decides to go out and buy a bottle.  Jokes abound about wine tasting terms, especially in the reverse snobbery of the non-professionals, for which read real ‘consumers’.  And perhaps this distrust and mirth faced with the language of wine tasting is growing in the present climate where wine is seen by many as worth only passing interest; it’s a beverage, stupid.  I like it or I don’t.  And if you want to come over all nomenclature about it, don’t be surprised if I’m arsey back.

Perhaps this is inevitable with wine which unlike a lot of specialist pursuits like science or opera, is also an FMCG in supermarkets and the homes of millions.  It has a parallel life, a dual utility.  Your basic consumer who likes a glass of wine does not go out and buy a bottle of polymer chemistry or Montezuma by Roger Sessions.  So they may not have much time for people who use the specialist language of science or opera and take it very seriously.  Or of wine. The picture here I took a little time back with a group of people at Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley.  We were, as you can imagine, tasting wines and sat slurping, spitting and writing in otherwise silence for over an hour and a half.  At least three of the people in the picture are now MWs (Masters of Wine).  It was fun. 

New wine styles and different wine drinking cultures make people reassess tasting terms and bring in the new.  Australia has brought the seemingly cricket term ‘line and length’ into wine tasting but I can assure you it has got nothing to do with bowling.  ‘Minerality’ is a term that causes fights too.  A couple of terms hovering like ghosts over modern tasting vocabulary are ‘breed’ and ‘finesse’ and it’s this last term I make some remarks about here. 

Tasting terms could be put in five classes.  Correlatives are things wine may smell and taste like, such as ‘floral’.  Concepts are complex connected ideas summed up by a single term, such as ‘balance’ or ‘structure’.  Descriptors are words of degree, continuums of states or qualities a wine may have, such as ‘mature’, ‘ripe’, ‘primary’, ‘fruity’. Descriptors can sometimes be close to concepts, such as the idea of ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ qualities. Technical terms are obviously just that, such as ’ullage’ or ‘VA (volatile acidity)’.  And colloquial terms are specific and traditional to wine tasting, such as ‘grip’ or ‘pinched’ or ’dumb’. 

‘Finesse’ is a descriptor.  It’s clearly something a wine has to a degree but not all wines will have it.  The great assumption it seems to make is that it is overwhelmingly a good thing and desired by most discerning tasters.  But like many wine terms, to make an accurate judgement with the term, you need some experience.  You need to have met finesse in all its degrees and the lack of it, to know what you are talking about.  This is where some people might begin to part company with wine tasting altogether and accuse it of snobbery or elitism.  Finesse simply is not a term that can be understood except by the trained and experienced.  A grasp of it requires tasting, thinking about and discussing a lot of varied wine over some time.  What the rest of the world calls ‘training’.

So what is it?  There’s no question it is a classic and traditional term, originally French, meaning two things at least: slenderness and delicacy but also the absolute desirability of these things, in this case, in wine.  And it may be summed up by the idea of refinement and elegance.  It refers not simply to the lack of excess weight or excess anything in a wine, but its balance, its physical and aesthetic proportions.  I guess it means the opposite of ‘rustic’.  And there is a sense of subtlety, style and flair.  Michael Broadbent MW, possibly a very traditional taster, emphasises this last point most in his definition: finesse – ‘style, breed and distinction’. 

So is this all plain sailing nowadays?  I wonder.  Vast numbers of wines are now well over 14% alcohol.  The idea of rustic, the simple and unadorned, is making a comeback in the rhetoric of many shouting the odds for ‘natural’ wine.  And modern ‘accessible luxury’ ideas of consumption quite value the idea that even the qualities of wine, like fashion brands in clothes and watches, should flaunt it and be bling or ‘naff’ to at least a degree.  Some may think the idea of restraint, understatement and ‘less is more’ is a dog that has had its day. 

Is it all over for finesse?

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