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Drink Your Words

Can a Wine Actually Be “Crunchy”?

February 21, 2022

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Mallory Heyer

Drink Your Words

Can a Wine Actually Be “Crunchy”?

February 21, 2022

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Mallory Heyer

A staple of the modern sommelier lexicon, the term captures the difficulty of articulating the convergence of taste and texture.

I am looking out my bedroom window as Nicole Raufeisen, on the phone from her apartment across town, prompts me to consider the weather conditions outside. It’s been a fluctuant Toronto winter, suspended between freezing and thawing, the streets and walkways perpetually dotted with half-frozen puddles. “It’s a real kind of sensory experience,” she says. “It’s also fun to think of it as a kind of sound.”  

Winter as a sound? Even without clear directive, intuition lands somewhere familiar: the crack and rupture of surface tension between layers of ice above and the water trapped beneath, that crunch of snow grinding between the nooks and crannies of a boot sole. 

We are talking about wine, in case that isn’t abundantly clear.

“It’s about a brittle sensation—like a candy, it has a kind of snap to it,” says Raufeisen, who leads operations and imports at the Toronto natural wine shop Grape Witches. “It kind of describes something in addition to taste in terms of tension. It’s just a perfect, succinct word to describe that texture: the balance between density and acid structure. That addition of acid almost causes the liquid to seize in a way that gives it a bit more of a three-dimensional feeling or experience.

Raufeisen is explaining “crunchy,” a wine term that, under any level of scrutiny, defies physics. The linguistics scholar Adrienne Lehrer, in her 1983 book Wine and Conversation, wrote, as if in preemptive retort to a sommelier 40 years in the future, “A wine cannot be crisp in the way that a cucumber is, that is, ‘brittle.’” Nevertheless, “crunchy” has become the descriptor du jour for high-acidity wines that, according to those in the know, produce a jolting effect not unlike biting down on a Granny Smith apple. 

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“Crunchy” has settled into the modern wine lexicon with ease, largely due to the laissez-faire expressiveness of the natural wine movement, but also because of the flavor qualities championed therein: freshness, bracing tartness, energy. However, the term originated in the 1970s with the late wine writer Pamela Vandyke Price, a pioneering wine authority in Britain. “Crunchy” was Price’s “personal term for wines that are so fresh and fruity that one feels able to squeeze them over the palate and press them in the mouth with extreme enjoyment,” she wrote in the glossary of her 1975 book, The Taste of Wine. She noted the qualities imparted to cabernet franc grapes grown in the “chalky, limestone vineyards” of the Loire Valley—“the fruitiness and the ‘zing’ of acidity”—and how they made for “delicious, crunchy wines in most years.” 

Texture is an essential and underappreciated aspect of taste, and English verbiage with regard to wine often grapples with the convergence of the two. “In the wine domain [words that apply to both taste and feel] are used to describe acidity, since acid can be tasted (producing a tart or sour taste) and felt (producing a sharp or biting feeling),” Lehrer wrote. “Sharp, for example, conventionally means ‘causes intense sensation.’ Since sharp objects can cause such a sensation, there is a natural extension to foods and beverages which produce this sensation.”

But it’s something else to assert, as Raufeisen does, that wine, a liquid, could suggest an audible snap akin to the ice beneath one’s feet. Raufeisen’s definition of “crunchy” can be explained as a form of ideasthesia, where the suggestion of concepts and metaphors activates the senses, essentially willing something into existence, even if only in one’s own perception. Or, as it so often boils down to these days, a vibe.

“I think it’s also maybe part of a larger phenomenon of talking about wine and describing wine … to make it more a part of words that you would use to describe lifestyle as opposed to just the beverage itself,” says Raufeisen. “A wine can be described as perfect for a certain situation as opposed to just talking about its fruit or its aromatic components.”

Raufeisen can’t remember the first time she encountered “crunchy” in a wine context. She is sure, however, that it’s only entered her lexicon in the past three or four years—likely picked up during wine tastings with fellow professionals. Such gatherings are, and have been, the echo chambers that give rise to the buzzwords of today and the loathed clichés of yesterday. The words change, but the mechanism that drives language in wine (or any complex subculture, for that matter) remains intact. Dive deeper into it, and what once might have been a revelation becomes self-evident subtext in conversation. As that subtext compounds, certain words are adopted as shorthand for more complex ideas, which becomes a sort of handshake among those in the know. Perhaps “crunchy” is what “minerality” used to be, and it will eventually descend just the same.

When I point out the absurdity of describing a wine as “crunchy” to someone with absolutely no exposure to wine jargon, Raufeisen laughs. And what is there to do but laugh? “Crunchy” is, after all, a reminder that it’s impossible to talk about wine without seeing, hearing, feeling and tasting things that aren’t there.

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