When it comes to descriptive wine words, the term “linear” can be confusing.
Wine professionals deploy the term in an array of ways, and the dictionary definition—“involving one dimension only; progressing from one stage to another in a single series of steps”—is slightly different from its usage in wine.
Jennifer Huether, MS, uses the term when she wants relay the story of a wine from start to finish.
“To me, it generally means the wine is simple,” she says. “One clear line from beginning to end, from the moment it hits your palate to the finish and lasting impression.”
Similarly, Élyse Lambert, MS, views the developments of a wine’s flavor akin to music.
“Wine, like music, can have different tones and variations, but when a wine is linear, it has only one tone,” she says. “It’s this lack of depth and layers that would mean linear wine, for me.”
So, what makes one wine linear and another complex?
Winemaking plays a large part. Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are prone to linear-tasting results, says Huether, but winemakers can prevent that through techniques like lees contact, barrel aging, fermentation and malolactic fermentation. These practices impart more flavors, aromas and complexity.
“These ‘simple’ wines that naturally do not have lots of aromatic qualities or flavors can actually turn into something magical with some care,” says Huether.
A winemaker who works with young vines, high yields and large production might create bottlings that taste linear, says Lambert. She would accept a lack of layers in an inexpensive wine, but expects more from higher-end bottlings.
Therein lies another complication. While “linear” can refer to the simple pleasures of an easy-drinking, inexpensive bottling, critics also use the term to praise highly rated, pricey wines like Opus One and Gaja.
While “linear” can refer to the simple pleasures of an easy-drinking, inexpensive bottling, critics also use the term to praise highly rated, pricey wines.
Madeline Puckette, cofounder of Wine Folly, remembers being startled when she first saw “linear” and “laser-like” used in a critic’s reviews. She believes they can be useful, however, and says that they describe very specific tasting experiences that people either love or hate.
“ ‘Laser-like’ and ‘linear’ describe wines with flavors and textures that seem to hit a similar spot on your tongue, or convey a singleminded flavor,” says Puckette. “ ‘Single-noted’ is probably the less desirable side of this type of wine, and I guess ‘laser-like’ would be the ultimate positive.”
In other words, there’s nothing linear about this term. For some wine pros, tasting notes are a type of poetry. It’s up to the taster to provide context for what they say and why.