There are words we use (not all of us of course) that at times seem like an odd way to describe a wine’s character. Polished is one of them, and it’s a word I like to use.
Polished in many cases refers to surface appearance such as the shiny look of silver or brass after it has been rubbed vigorously with a cloth. I often think of the floors of a bowling alley when the word polished is used (you know… those shiny, slick alleys the bowling ball rolls down). However, the word polished is also defined as to render finished, refined or elegant. We all know you can’t rub a wine to bring it to a high sheen, so it is the second definition of this word that I will focus on (there are more than two definitions of course, I am only referencing the two that I mentioned here).
I have to say that nine times out of ten I use the word “polished” as an adjective with tannins. For a wine to be refined and elegant it most have polished tannins. When I say polished tannins, I mean to convey the idea that the wine glides over the palate without any rough edges. It is as if someone actually did take a cloth to those stubborn tannins and polished them to a high sheen so that they glide effortlessly across the palate without any friction. Very similar to using the words slick or silky, except that by saying polished, I am suggesting structure also.
A wine can certainly be slick or silky on the palate and not have a lot of structure. It can be a simple wine that is very tasty and goes down quickly and easily. I think that most of us have had a wine like that. We pop it, pour it, and then it’s gone before we know it. However, a wine that has polished tannins, makes us pause and think a bit about what we are putting in our mouth.
We might look at it from this angle. Let’s say we pick up a rock and at first glance there is nothing special about it. However, we start rubbing the rock with the sleeve of our shirt and notice that there is a shiny element beneath the seemingly rough and unappealing surface. After running it through a tumbler and polishing it up, this once ugly, rough stone turns out to be a beautifully stunning agate.
Tannins in a wine can be like that stone. They can be rough and edgy, or smooth and shiny, depending on the methods used in the wine making process. Some wine makers choose to have rougher tannins in their wines perhaps by allowing more skin tannins to be extracted during fermentation, or by using a healthy dose of new oak (which gives it a lot of wood tannins). The idea is that after several years of aging, the tannins will soften and integrate with the fruit, giving the patient buyer a fantastic experience when they open the bottle a few years down the road. The tannins in a wine like this will never reach the polished stage. They will soften, and certainly become more approachable…But they will not be polished.
On the other hand, there are wine makers that strive to have their wines beautifully drinkable (sorry, I couldn’t think of another way to put it) from the start, yet well structured and certainly ago lie. Without getting into a geeky, technical dissertation about the differences in wine making techniques, there are ways to do this and get excellent results without cheating. Certainly fruit quality and the type of oak treatment used have a lot to do with it. The point is that the wine certainly has tannins, but they are polished, elegant and refined so that the wine flows across the palate seamlessly. There are not rough edges of grip on the finish.
I hope in some way this has helped you understand the word “polished” when used as a wine descriptor. Some like their wines polished and some don’t. Either way a wine can shine, polished or not
Cheers! Stan the wine man