“Many people find it helpful to think of wines as having a shape,” the late British wine writer Pamela Vandyke Price wrote in her 1975 text, The Taste of Wine. It’s the kind of sensorial thought exercise that has captured the minds of inquisitive tasters for more than two millennia.
The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, one of the first thinkers to consider the atom, perceived taste as a physical interaction between the tongue and atoms of different shapes. The sensation of bitterness or acidity was caused by small, jagged atoms that prodded and scraped the tongue, creating a sort of harsh friction; conversely, the palliative sensation of sweetness was caused by larger, round atoms that unfurled over the tongue like a blanket. Even in antiquity, it was clear that one’s sense of taste relied on other senses, too.
It’s natural to think of shapes as a visual cue, but within the lexicon of drink, it’s often described as more of a feeling, the way one might use familiar objects to feel their way through the dark—the distinct curvature of a sofa, the linearity of a stairway railing. And there is no word as shapely as “round.” “Roundness is something felt as the wine passes over the palate and is held momentarily in the mouth,” Price continued. In the 1914 edition of Beverages De Luxe, a connoisseur’s guide to wine and spirits published out of Louisville, Kentucky, Barbaresco wines are lauded as “round and soft, resembling Burgundy.” Johnnie Walker Black “sips with a smooth and round flavour,” read a 1939 magazine ad in Life.
“Round,” as one might assume in any other context, means “devoid of rough edges.” But as soon as verbiage is solidified, it begins to metastasize. Evolutions of “round” moved beyond broader notions of shape and grew corporeal. “A round wine has its skeleton (the alcohol) adequately and pleasantly covered with flesh (the fruit) and is enhanced by a good skin (the fragrance),” Price explains. “Excess rotundity shows a lack of proportion, but many young wines possess a type of puppy fat which they shed later.”
This type of language shouldn’t surprise an industry that, since the 18th century, has used the body of a wine as a pillar of classification. One could see how “round” became “curvaceous,” “voluptuous,” “luscious,” “supple”—words used in prestigious wine publications to emphasize the sensuality of experiencing wine. Spend enough time with a few old issues of Wine Spectator and you’ll find more than enough lines to splice together a found poem of unrequited lust. “Alluring, sexy, voluptuous wine that is remarkably approachable now; but just wait,” was how the magazine described the 1995 vintage of Guigal’s La Mouline, which Robert Parker once called his desert island wine.
Beverly Crandon, a Toronto-based sommelier, can’t help but laugh incredulously at this kind of wine writing: “What is this, a Harlequin romance novel?” For Crandon, roundness is more a certain stage of maturity being expressed. “If I’m using ‘round’ as a descriptor, I’m talking about a wine where nothing is out of balance,” she says. “Nothing jumps out at you on the palate. So everything is copacetic; it’s very cohesive.” Crandon notes that a similar logic follows in baking, where “rounding” is the act of stretching and smoothing the outside of a dough to give a glimpse of its final form, in contrast to a tacky, shapeless dough that adheres rather than coheres.
In an era where rough edges in a wine or spirit are often sought after as character virtues rather than character flaws, it’s fair to wonder if “round” still holds the weight it did two decades ago—back when a bold Napa Valley zinfandel could be crudely described as “voluptuous but not blowsy.” “Angularity” has since emerged as a quality worth celebrating, despite it being the literal antonym of “round,” a descriptor to which most wines made in the past century would have aspired.
Today, roundness has increasingly become a marker for the texture and mouthfeel of a wine that results from specific processes: malolactic fermentation, sur lie aging, a lack of filtration. When used to describe cohesion and self-actualization, as Crandon suggests, then it makes sense for roundness itself to manifest not as an ultimatum, but a spectrum. “Round” has remained in the drinks lexicon across eras and attitudes, its malleability allowing it to thrive in the early 20th century’s fixation on alcohol as a “smooth,” painless experience; in the Parker era of big, bodacious fruit bombs; in modern wine’s freak-flag moment. The ideal of “round” is ever-shifting, but one thing is for certain, as Price writes: “How round a wine ought to be depends on the quality it should ideally attain.”