This is a very interesting word to use in a wine descriptor because it can relay a variety of implications as to what the reviewer is trying to convey about the wine. It is perhaps one of those words that needs some surrounding context in order to clarify what is being said about the wine in question. Another words, without some further details it can be misconstrued, doing the wine injustice.
For example, let’s say I’m describing a Pinot Noir using the word lithe in the descriptor…
Cherries come through on the palate with hints of raspberry and black tea. Lithe, elegant and clean with a bracing long finish.
In this example, what am I conveying about the wine to my reader? Since I noted that the wine is both clean and bracing on the palate, the use of the word lithe in this case would indicate that it is on the lean side not full-bodied (there is another word for another day). Had I just thrown in the word lithe without any surrounding text to clarify, it may have conveyed something entirely different. What do I mean?
Lithe has a couple of meanings that can be applied to wine. It can mean lean as noted above, or it can mean supple and soft. What if I were to describe a Cabernet Sauvignon using this word without any supporting adjectives?
lithe notes of currants and cherries flow seamlessly across the palate into a pleasing finish.
Am I trying to say here that the fruit notes are lean, or am I trying to convey that they are supple and soft on the palate perhaps lacking structure? I say lacking structure, because lithe can also mean pliable and flexible like a ballerina’s body. I don’t know about you, but when I watch a ballerina I sometimes wonder if they have any muscle or bones (structure). Their flexibility is beyond my comprehension (I have trouble reaching around to scratch my back). Can someone be flexible without being lean? Yes, there are bigger folks out there that have amazing genetics, and are quite flexible. I know this is a stretch (no pun intended) on the word lithe, but I am trying to show the importance of surrounding context when using this word.
It can also be used in conjunction with tannins. Are the tannins supple or pliable, instead of rigid and abrasive? Silky tannins are lithe for sure and unless a writer clarifies this, the meaning will be lost.
I myself have never used this word when describing a wine, but since I have spent some time looking into it, I may use it in the future. If I were to use it, I would more than likely use it to indicate a leaner or lighter style of wine, since I believe that is what most wine reviewers are trying to convey with this word. However, I use the word supple a lot when describing the tannins in a wine. I could substitute lithe instead of supple, but again, this would require some surrounding adjectives to clarify my meaning (do you get my drift here?). It’s a good word for describing a wine, but it requires some effort by the writer to convey to the reader what they are trying to describe.
Wines can be skinny, light, graceful or supple. It’s up to us as wine writers to make sure we convey the correct meaning to our readers so that they understand what we are trying to say. Whoever said that writing is easy, has never written for an audience. I can only hope that I have one myself. Anyway, I hope that in some small way, I have helped you understand the word lithe as it relates to wine.
Cheers! Stan The Wine Man