TRÉS CHIC, TRÉS STYLISH... Our impossible task of defining how a wine should be categorised

When Phife, from A Tribe Called Quest, rapped “Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have” he could have easily been describing a typical wine shop display.

Wine’s great intrinsic paradox is that there is so much diversity and discovery to be made it all gets a bit too much. It’s one of the reasons we all end up looking for, and drinking, the same stuff that we always do. Making sense of it all is darn near impossible, even for the pros who make a living tasting, adjudicating and marketing the stuff.

When Vagabond launched in 2010 we wanted to place a simpler and easier framework over the way to choose wines. That’s why the old ‘This one comes from France. This one comes from Australia’ categorisation went out the window. France, on its own, has enough styles of wine to keep pretty much anybody on their toes for the rest of eternity. And that’s before you get to Italy.

Instead we decided to split our wines into a colour-coded scheme based on how it actually feels to drink the wine. At the time a handful of wine stores had fumbled around with something similar. Maybe grape variety was the right way? But that soon ran into problems. What does a lithe, acidic Chablis have in common with a sumptuous, creamy Californian Chardonnay? Other than they are both made from Chardonnay? And that’s where our categories originate from. Not ‘what is it’ or ‘where is it’ but ‘how is it’. We split whites and reds into four colour-coded categories initially.

Whites: CRISP SUBTLE AROMATIC RICH

Reds: VIBRANT ELEGANT SPICY BOLD

‘Subtle’ proved to be too much for the good people of Fulham – and ourselves – to get our heads around and was subsequently dropped from our white wine categories. Argument still surfaces in its favour from time to time though. While the names of each category are sometimes a little fraught and require some explanations, we always believed that the colour themes would provide a sense of the wine’s personality as much, if not more than, the actual terms used.

Have you ever tried a wine and said ‘I taste red’? That’s a synesthetic response. And it’s a response that is totally bound up in the tasting of wines. Most notably there’s Vinho Verde – literally ‘green wine’ – that uses that synesthetic approach in naming the region of origin it comes from. It’s been a far more evocative, descriptive, and successful, name than having to point at a map and say ‘this one comes from the cool northern boundary of Portugal along the Minho River valley and is made with the grape Alvarinho. Which is called Albariño if you’re living across the river in Spain’.

TRÉS CHIC, TRÉS STYLISH

19 August 2020

When Phife, from A Tribe Called Quest, rapped “Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have” he could have easily been describing a typical wine shop display.

Wine’s great intrinsic paradox is that there is so much diversity and discovery to be made it all gets a bit too much. It’s one of the reasons we all end up looking for, and drinking, the same stuff that we always do. Making sense of it all is darn near impossible, even for the pros who make a living tasting, adjudicating and marketing the stuff.

When Vagabond launched in 2010 we wanted to place a simpler and easier framework over the way to choose wines. That’s why the old ‘This one comes from France. This one comes from Australia’ categorisation went out the window. France, on its own, has enough styles of wine to keep pretty much anybody on their toes for the rest of eternity. And that’s before you get to Italy.

Instead we decided to split our wines into a colour-coded scheme based on how it actually feels to drink the wine. At the time a handful of wine stores had fumbled around with something similar. Maybe grape variety was the right way? But that soon ran into problems. What does a lithe, acidic Chablis have in common with a sumptuous, creamy Californian Chardonnay? Other than they are both made from Chardonnay? And that’s where our categories originate from. Not ‘what is it’ or ‘where is it’ but ‘how is it’. We split whites and reds into four colour-coded categories initially.

Whites: CRISP SUBTLE AROMATIC RICH

Reds: VIBRANT ELEGANT SPICY BOLD

‘Subtle’ proved to be too much for the good people of Fulham – and ourselves – to get our heads around and was subsequently dropped from our white wine categories. Argument still surfaces in its favour from time to time though. While the names of each category are sometimes a little fraught and require some explanations, we always believed that the colour themes would provide a sense of the wine’s personality as much, if not more than, the actual terms used.

Have you ever tried a wine and said ‘I taste red’? That’s a synesthetic response. And it’s a response that is totally bound up in the tasting of wines. Most notably there’s Vinho Verde – literally ‘green wine’ – that uses that synesthetic approach in naming the region of origin it comes from. It’s been a far more evocative, descriptive, and successful, name than having to point at a map and say ‘this one comes from the cool northern boundary of Portugal along the Minho River valley and is made with the grape Alvarinho. Which is called Albariño if you’re living across the river in Spain’.

The other way we framed this cadre of styles was to think of the spectrum of dairy products. That a crisp wine would be akin to skimmed, low-fat milk while a bold one would be more like extra-thick double cream.

We’ve used the styles approach for a decade now and some of the old certainties have drained away as winemakers the world over have looked for a ‘less is more’, ‘freshness and drinkability’ aspect to their wines. As an example; in 2010 it was near enough certain that an Argentine Malbec would be 15% alcohol, heavily extracted and aged in lots of new French oak barrels – basically as bold as wines got – the latter years of the decade saw a huge turnaround as those titanic wines proved to age prematurely, and were often tiring to drink more than one glass of.

We’ve even listed an Argie Malbec as a vibrant red as a result of this change in winemaking. The point is it describes the experience of the wine not the expectation of the wine. We’ll keep tasting and buying wines, always thinking ‘which style category does this belong in?’ as we haven’t come up with a better way to interpret the myriad differences between bottles yet. We hope you find it helpful. But we’d be happy to hear of a better approach if you have one.

Colin Thorne, Buying and Selling Wine since 1999