I recently had a bottle of excellent Sancerre which was described by a few experts as a precise wine. As much as I like reading about wine, the word ‘precise’ in reference to plonk has escaped me. So, I decided to investigate and have a little more fun with wine linguistics.
I found the word immediately. The writers for the magazine Decanter have described their top 2022 white wine, a Tasmanian chardonnay, in the following way:
A wonder of lightness and precision; a hedonistic mix of immediate restrained pleasure and long-term intellectual provocation.
It was written by a master of wine (‘MW’ after their name) and it’s probably because of the enormous gap that separates me from the said MW that I have absolutely no idea what it means. I also think the statement off the pretentiousness scale. But I must confess that I immediately looked for the wine here in Poland and with much regret I have found it unavailable. I might not have the pleasure of ‘cellaring’ it, let alone drinking it, in the foreseeable future.
Having read this and other descriptions of wines’ precision (such as “The fruit feels very detailed and precise”), I decided to look for explanations of what that might mean. But before I did, though, I had a pear and wondered whether its taste is precise. I concentrated hard but could not decide. It was definitely a pear but was it a precise pear – I have no idea.
Anyway, below are a few quotes I found (I am not giving links, I don’t want to make fun of people, only of what they say).
- “Precise” applies to wine as it does in its other uses. It means that the flavours are well-defined, distinct, and detailed. It’s a highly positive term.
- Often used when talking about acid in a wine that is precise, focused, and cuts through everything like a laser beam. —J.B.
- Clear-cut is, well, pretty clear-cut to understand! The wine has sharp definition.
- Precision goes beyond balance, indicating a wine taken along its path from grape to bottle with exceptional skill. Each quality in the wine is exactly as it should be. Nothing is overbearing or out of proportion.
- ‘Tension’ and ‘energy’ are modish words to use about wine, as are ‘precision’ and ‘focus’. After a purple patch in which opulence and ripeness have been the cock qualities, we’re now chasing a different bird. Well-crafted Petit Chablis from the latest vintage certainly has these qualities, but what else could hope to qualify, and where do such wines come from?
Hmmmm, I thought, I still don’t know what it means. It seems to me these definitions are quite clear example of the ‘ignotum-per-ignotum’ (unknown by unknown) kind of definition. It hardly tells me anything if ‘precise’ is described by ‘well-defined’, even with distinct and detailed added for good measure. I continue not to have a clue what that means (especially after my hope-to-be-soon-classic pear experiment).
I honestly also have no idea what it means that acidity in a wine cuts through anything like a beam. I appreciate the metaphor, but what does it mean?
The fourth definition is perhaps clearest – precision means high competence. However, surprisingly, precision that goes beyond balance is pretty much described in terms of balance and not competence. I must admit that I am none the wiser as to what it means that there is nothing overbearing in wine.
I continue to think about wine in terms of whether I like it or not. I even struggle with what exactly the ‘structure of wine’ is. I have actually read quite a number of descriptions of wine structure and continue to think that it’s a fancy way of saying “I like the wine”.
The descriptions that I found continued on that path and I started to suspect that a trick is being played on me. I started suspecting that ‘precise’ simply means ‘very good’, except we can’t really say this. Why? Well, because the expert must talk like an expert and talking like an expert makes them an expert.
I would imagine that most of wine experts know very well that they are under pressure. There is much research on wine tasting and wine scoring which at least casts doubt on the experts’ ability to recognise wine, let alone recognise good wine (at least judging by the price). You could, for example, have a look at an account of the work of Robert Hodgson, a James Randi of the wine industry.
In such a context, the ability to describe wine that you like with an ultimately ambiguous term is a godsend. Say the wine is precise and they all can shove off. How is it not precise if it is so precise? And maybe, just maybe, it’s just the pear that was fuzzy.
And so, let me finish with an understanding word. I think being a wine expert is tough. And I appreciate, for example, when a certain master of wine from Germany whose YouTube channel I frequent gets things wrong when blind tasting. I was delighted when a master sommelier from Latvia got almost everything wrong on one of her blind tastings. I appreciate such openness a lot.
And so, saying that a wine is precise is a lovely breakfall strategy. It reinforces their masterfulness and confirms them as experts. ‘Precise wine’ is a wink at the plonker-audience like me. Message received, I wish I could tell them.
And it’s a message that I need. After all, they certainly know much more about wine than I will ever do. I also do like their suggestions of wines they say are worth trying. Without them my tasting would be completely blind, even without hiding the wine I drink.