Thursday, December 10, 2009


Graphite, unlike quince and toast (a.k.a. pain grillé), is not something one typically tastes. And yet it's a fairly common tasting note descriptor. Well, you can taste it, but you'd really need to go out of your way to do it. There's plenty of precedent for non edible descriptors like barnyard, flint, smoke, cedar and so on. However, graphite is nothing more than carbon bonded in sheets. The reason anything smells is because of volatile compounds such as esters. When your compound is bonded together into a crystal, you're not going to smell much of anything.

It appears likely that graphite as a wine descriptor is related to other terms such as #2 pencil lead, pencil shavings and even cedar. After all, most people experience graphite as a component of pencil lead (though lead is a misnomer since pencils no longer contain any lead). But it turns out that graphite isn't even the proper description for the writing part of the pencil. It's graphite and China clay, which has kaolin in it. Kaolin, apparently, has an earthy, metallic aroma.

Yet most people don't smell the kaolin by itself. It's usually ground up with the cedar wood part of the pencil and mechanically volatilized. Thus while pencil shavings have a distinct smell, they're neither lead, graphite, kaolin or cedar individually. They a mix of kaolin, cedar and perhaps the yellow paint or other impurities in the clay,

In sum:

Graphite = WRONG. It smells of nothing, is not readily tasted, and what smells in pencil shavings is just about everything else.
#2 Pencil Lead = WRONG. It's overly specific, and pencils aren't made from lead anyway.
Pencil Shavings = OK. Between the cedar and mechanical volatilization, there's a very obvious and unique aroma associated with it.
Cedar = OK. Even as a chunk of wood, it is distinct and very aromatic.

It seems in the interest of unnecessary degrees of specificity, the wine world has rather ironically added a term with an ambiguous meaning to its lexicon. What good is a descriptor if it has no commonly understood meaning? Ask several winos what graphite actually means in the context of wine, and you'll likely get several different answers. This is a case where everyone would be better off if the pretense were to be dropped. Wine is already complicated enough between the appellation system, hundreds of varietals, stylistic preferences and myriad terroirs that it's wholly unnecessary to invent meaningless descriptors. Let's stick to the logical ones: metallic, earthy or even, yes, pencil shavings.


Jeff said...

Great post. That's probably more thought than anyone has ever put into the notion of graphite! For me, it smells like the box car derby in Boy Scouts, because you use graphite to lubricate your wheels....but cedar/pencil lead is probably more accurate.

Anonymous said...

i love this post. it goes right along with "minerality" in the vein of inaccurate descriptors. well done.

CabFrancoPhile said...

I've been on a Quixotic quest recently with respect to graphite, I suppose. I wonder if the graphite lubricant has any other chemicals in it. The flaky layers of graphite have the mechanical properties you want, but perhaps something else in the compound has the characteristic aroma.

Regardless, the interesting part is that every person's definition of graphite I've read is slightly different. One person defined it as the shavings of just the writing part of a drafting pencil. On one hand, it's interesting how subjective and experiential the term is. But also frustrating since it's simultaneously incredibly specific and curiously ambiguous.

CabFrancoPhile said...

ithacork, thanks for your comment, I definitely need to add your blog to my RSS reader. Although I sometimes use minerality, I'm starting to believe it has more to do with acidity than anything else. Certainly vines in, say, limestone aren't directly putting Calcium Carbonate in the grapes, though the soil may affect the expression.

When wine re-defines scientific terms, I'm not OK with it. Biodynamics in particular is a sore spot, even if I drink the occasional BioD wine.

maulmatt! said...

This is an interesting post. I always considered these desciptors, and even the more straight-forward fruit descriptors, as subjective poetic license.

How much of what comes into your mind when experiencing a wine needs to be re-examined? Is the automatic recall of the mind more important in communicating about the wine, or is the translation of that recall into terms more grounded in reason more important?

I'm sure there are wine writers and wine readers in both camps. Just goes to show you how different types of people may interpret any given information.

CabFrancoPhile said...

Matt, nice comments. In my mind it comes down to knowing your audience. For yourself, something like "smell's like Auntie's apple pie" is going to give the exact impression. But it means nothing to any other readers. I often feel like those making public notes, especially critics, are not cognizant of their readers. If they're attempting to communicate with a broader audience, very specific experiential descriptions miss the target completely.