Wine in Two Words
By ERIC ASIMOV
I’M not one to go overboard in describing the myriad aromas and flavors in a glass of wine. In fact, most of the gaudy descriptions found in tasting notes will not help a whit to understand the character of a bottle of wine or to anticipate the experience of drinking it. While it may seem heretical to say, the more specific the description of a wine, the less useful information is actually transmitted. See for yourself. All you have to do is compare two reviewers’ notes for a single bottle: one critic’s ripe raspberry, white pepper and huckleberry is another’s sweet-and-sour cherries and spice box. What’s the solution? Well, if you feel the urgent need to know precisely what a wine is going to taste like before you sniff and swallow, forget it. Experience will give you a general idea, but fixating on exactitude is a fool’s errand. Two bottles of the same wine can taste different depending on when, where and with whom you open them.
Besides, the aromas and flavors of good wines can evolve over the course of 20 minutes in a glass. Perhaps they can be captured momentarily like fireflies in a child’s hands, yet reach for them again a minute later and — whiff! — they’re somewhere else. But the general character of a wine: now, that’s another matter. A brief depiction of the salient overall features of a wine, like its weight, texture and the broad nature of its aromas and flavors, can be far more helpful in determining whether you will like that bottle than a thousand points of detail. In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.
These two simple words suggest the basic divide of all wines, the two grand categories that explain more about the essence of any bottle than the most florid, detailed analogies ever could. Just as important, thinking of wine in this more streamlined fashion is an efficient method for clarifying your own preferences. First, though, let’s define our terms, beginning with sweet, one of the more alarming words to American wine drinkers. Alarming? Naturally. For years, the cliché in the wine trade has been, “Americans talk dry but drink sweet.” Some of the most popular American wines, like Kendall-Jackson Vintner Select chardonnay, are made with unannounced residual sugar in them. But when I use the word sweet, I’m thinking not only of actual sugar in the wine, but also (more often) of the impression of sweetness. This impression can be provided by dominant fruit flavors and high concentrations of glycerol, a product of fermentation that is heavy, oily and slightly sweet. Zinfandel, for example, is usually dry, but I would categorize it as sweet because of its intense fruitiness. I would also include plush, opulent California pinot noirs, many Châteauneuf-du-Papes from the ripe 2007 vintage, Côtes du Rhône from the 2009 vintage, Amarones and a number of Spanish reds. Among whites I would classify as sweet are California chardonnays from the tutti-frutti school, with their tropical flavors and buttery notes, although the term does not fit leaner, more structured examples. Voluptuous viogniers, wherever they come from, typify sweet. Gewürztraminer and pinot gris, especially in their unctuous Alsatian modes, qualify, as do the more flowery torrontés from Argentina.
Savory wines, as you would imagine, are the ones that don’t leave the impression of sweetness. In fact, they may not taste like fruits at all, with the exception of citrus and possibly apple flavors, which are more acidic than sweet. Fino sherries, especially manzanillas, are saline rather than sweet, for example. Good Muscadet and Sancerre? Chablis and other white Burgundies? They may offer suggestions of fruit flavors but they are far more likely to convey herbal or smoky flavors along with the stony, chalky, slate and flint qualities that come under the vague, all-encompassing term “mineral.” Mineral flavors often go hand in hand with lively acidity. Indeed, many of the wines in the savory category also have a freshness that comes with acidity. Good examples of Soave and dry rieslings would also fit in. Can reds be savory? Of course. In the world of tasting notes, good syrah wines from the northern Rhône Valley are often said to have aromas and flavors of herbs, olives and bacon fat — prime savory material. Yet if you pick the grapes riper and lavish the wine with oak, northern Rhône wines can become sweet. Australian shiraz and California syrahs are more in the sweet category, although some producers in both places make excellent savory examples. Young Riojas are more sweet than savory, but as they get older — especially old-school gran reservas — they turn smoky, spicy and almost leathery, savory for sure.
Naturally, generalizing like this is dangerous. Many categories of wine are too hard to consign to either sweet or savory, and anybody can offer exceptions and counterexamples. Often you have to go bottle by bottle and producer by producer to figure out where a wine fits. Commercial Beaujolais, for example, is often produced to amplify the fruitiness of the gamay grape, and so would be classified as sweet. But serious, small-production Beaujolais often shows more acidity and mineral flavors. The inherent fruitiness is there, but a fine Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent? Arguably savory, but again, it depends on the producer. Red Burgundy can also go both ways, especially when young. Good examples charm and seduce with their gorgeous, sweet perfumes, but the sweetness is often leavened with earthy mineral qualities. As good red Burgundies age, their savory side becomes more pronounced. Indeed, aging does bring out the savory elements in many wines. How about Bordeaux? Classic Pauillac is renowned for flavors often described as currant, graphite and cigar box. To me, they are savory. Wines from the Right Bank, with their higher percentage of merlot, are harder to classify. They may have more fruit aromas, but they, too, often have an underlying mineral quality along with a purity of fruit. Of course, a producer’s intent can completely change the character of a wine. The riper the grapes, the sweeter the juice, and the more likely the wine will end up on the sweet side, whether from Pauillac, St.-Émilion or anywhere else. Many sought-after Napa cabernets like Bryant Family are sweet, even as great counterexamples like Dominus and Mayacamas have pronounced savory elements. Finally, let’s turn to German rieslings. Bottles with residual sugar would obviously seem to be sweet. Indeed, it would be perverse to classify sweet German rieslings as savory. Yet, I have to admit I’m tempted, especially by good Mosels, which, with their energy, taut acidic structure and penetrating minerality, can come across as exactly that.
But perhaps that’s going too far. I’ll leave it to you to decide. The point of this exercise, after all, is not so much to label every wine as one or the other, as it is to suggest a different, simpler way of thinking about these wines. And, perhaps, to help people make their own discoveries.
For example, if you like Australian shiraz, you might assume you would also like northern Rhône reds, as they’re made from the same grape. But the sweet-and-savory method would suggest a greater affinity for ripe Châteauneuf-du-Papes — made from a blend of grapes rather than straight syrah, but bold and full of fruit like shirazes. Or say you were partial to savory wines, and were faced with a selection of Brunello di Montalcinos, which can fall into both categories. Knowing your own preference would help you rule out those with amplified oak or sweet fruit in favor of those higher-acid, bitter cherry and spice flavors.
Of course, this scheme may not have an immediate practical application until more of us speak the same language. Only the rare wine shop or sommelier might respond to a request for a savory wine, and you might not want to ask anybody for a sweet wine, unless you are certain they know what you mean. Some might object that I am dumbing down wine, but the reverse is true. Simplicity, as designers, cosmologists and philosophers know, is a virtue. As the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéryonce put it, “Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
It’s One or the Other
All wines may be separated into two broad categories, sweet and savory, depending on the grapes, where they were grown and the intent and techniques of the producer. While there are many exceptions, and each wine should be evaluated individually, it’s possible to generalize by genre:
Sweet: Zinfandel, grenache, Amarone, commercial Beaujolais, California pinot noir, viognier, modern Barolo, Napa cabernet
Savory: Fino sherry, Muscadet, serious Beaujolais, white Burgundy, dry riesling, Rhone reds, old-school Barolo, extra-brut Champagne