What is “rustic”?

In yesterdays International Herald Tribune, I stumbled across an article by Eric Asimov on a Côtes du Rhône wine tasting. In this context the author contemplated the use of the word “rustic” and its meaning in describing wine styles. Eric rightly pointed out that “rustic” means different things to different people which in the end leads to quite a degree of confusion.

Does “rustic” mean “rough” and “simple” as some users imply thereby giving the term a negative connotation? Or is it meant positively in admiration for wines that show true character of a regional nature, wines that cannot come from elsewhere but this one place, made under the specific conditions pertinent to the location. Whatever the intended meaning, one might better understand the complexity of the term if contrasting it with the opposite meaning.

For “rough” and “simple” one could think of “elegant” or “refined” and “complex”, “sophisticated” maybe “urbane”. And for “regional character” the opposite might be “national”, “placeless”, “cosmopolitan”, “pan-something”. Some of my vintner-winemaker friends use another term to describe the opposite of “regional character” wines. They call it “industrial” wines often faultless products, technically well made but lacking in “character”. In this case a “hand made” wine is contrasted with a “technical” product.

Another aspect of an “industrial” wine is the consistency of the taste. One knows what to expect, its predictable. In contrast we have the small single vineyard with the variability of season where you “drink” the terroir, the site and its climate of that particular year. Whereas the former wines are for the “layperson” and the “conservative” who does not want to make a “mistake” in the choice of the wine, the latter are for the “connoisseur” and the adventurer.

We as small and/or boutique vintners want of course to make “faultless” wines but at the same time our main selling point possibly lies in our “fault lines”, our uniqueness, our authenticity, our character, our variability, our unpredictability. The “roughness” and “simplicity” of our artisan efforts in producing great wines of character becomes the backbone of our art of wine-making and as long as there are enough adventurers out there, our life and work will be interesting and rewarding.

Whatever it is, the wine I had, was just delicious (July 2008 in Madrid)

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