I got into a discussion the other day about the word "serious" in relation to wine. The person who used the word was setting it in opposition to what he termed "quaffable"; specifically, Beaujolais was the latter, while Burgundy and Bordeaux were the former.
There was some objection to both characterizations on my part -- the best cru Beaujolais is hardly quaffable, while the worst mass-market Burgundy and Bordeaux are hardly serious -- but it got me thinking about how I might actually apply the word "serious" to wine, were I to do so.
The first, and most obvious, use would be a characterization of the wine in the glass...a stern, solemn wine that lacks any sense of joy, frivolity or fun. And indeed, many a top Bordeaux might qualify. This isn't to say that one can't derive joy/frivolity/fun from such a wine (drinking will to that to a person), only that the wine itself doesn't bring those characteristics to the party. Or any party. This sort of wine doesn't party.
But that's not what the person who originally used the word intended. He was talking about something else, a quality that might otherwise be identified as "noble" or "fine" vs. something more prosaic. I understand this use of the word, but I don't endorse it, because it smacks of faith in hierarchies over intrinsic qualities. While I might agree that, on balance and for my palate, certain wines regularly reach greater heights than other wines, I think to imply that the best efforts among that latter group are somehow "unserious" is to unwisely and unfairly denigrate their qualities. I'm not arguing for vinous socialism, nor am I embracing the often-abused refrain "all that matters is what's in the glass" as a way to take down the high and mighty of the wine world, I just think that to divide up the world of wine into "serious" and "unserious" categories is dangerously reductive thinking. The qualities of individual wines really do matter. "Serious" wines are to be found everywhere, not just where one expects to find them.
So if my interlocutor was using the word in a fashion I didn't like, how would I use the word? For me, a serious wine is:
- A wine made to the highest quality possible given the restrictions in place. These include terroir, cépage, climate, typicity…any or all of which may or may not be legally mandated…and more external concerns like available money, etc. The wine would be made without marketability or price point as the primary consideration, though this is not to say that they can’t be strongly considered; winemaking isn't a charitable pursuit.
- A wine that is “serious” in intent, made to be the best it can be and not something merely acceptable or only good enough for uncritical quaffing. This doesn't, however, mean that serious wines can't also be quaffable. For example, the best Bugey Cerdon or brachetto d’Acqui can be serious, if they’re made with maximum care and attention. Both are, obviously, “fun” wines. But they’re made with a seriousness of purpose and a laser-like focus on quality, not simply because winemaking is what Dad and Great-Great-Great-Grandad did for a living, or because any idiot can sell Central Coast pinot (not true, of course) given the success of Sideways, or because there happens to be a perceived market for a drinkable $10 Bordeaux and a supply of grapes to fill that market.
- It's also important to note that these requirements say nothing about style. A serious wine might be resolutely traditional or employ every modernizing trick in the book. Again, it’s the intent that matters.
The opposite term -- unserious -- would apply to wines that are made with a primary consideration other than the highest possible quality. This would include price-point wines, wines made with compromises (which is not necessarily a value judgment) along the way, and wines made simply because they’re fun, or experimental, or in any non-qualitative way entertaining (e.g. Marilyn Merlot).
There's a need for both types of wine, serious and unserious, in our modern marketplace. Who wants to be serious all the time? But it's important to understand what seriousness really is. It's not a pedigree, or a shockingly elevated price, or a reputation, or a bunch of points, or even the chorused acclaim of the oenogeek masses. It's an expression of passion and skill, fired by intent, and given birth in a glass.