It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Americans talk dry but drink sweet.

I wish I had the temerity to claim that today’s title originated in the deep and semi-fertile recesses of my oeno-inspired imagination.  Alas, however, it did not.  I came across it while researching support for the theme of today’s article that too many red wines taste sweet.  I have been in denial of this for years, as have, I suspect, a wide swath of American wine enthusiasts.  We have been swirling sniffing and savoring red wines that are anything but dry.  We have, it seems, been “drinking under false pretenses.” 

So, how has this sugary state of affairs come about?  While I have no research to substantiate it, I believe that many Americans—after having downed the fizzy stuff with burgers and fries for fifteen or twenty years—have unwittingly developed a cola-trained palate.  That palate preference, in turn, has been supplemented and reinforced by the wide variety of supermarket processed foods that quite frequently contain sugar or its various equivalents as part of their flavor profile. (Browse those ingredient lists!)  And given that history, it seems—via an inescapable palate progression—why we have a preference for sweet tasting red wines, particularly those that caress and seduce our palates with the sensuous, mouth-coating richness of sun-ripened grapes.

Notwithstanding those musings, however, there are many within the industry that point the skewer at Robert M. Parker—the immensely successful founder of The Wine Advocate and creator of his widely adopted 100 point scale for assessing wines.  Wines in his 90+ category—particularly those 95 and above—are often large-scaled, port-like, fruit bombs.  And while he decries the notion of a “monolithic Parker palate,” there is no question that many producers create wines to appeal to his perceived preference and those of his subscribers.  Moreover, winegrowers lucky enough to be anointed with a 95+ Parker rating will never have to fret about marketing—spontaneously generated, multi-year waiting lists for new customers are the typical result.  Who would not want to make that style of wine?

Steve Heimoff—West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, author, and one of the best wine bloggers around—is unequivocal about the sugary sweetness in red wines.  In his March 13, 2013 blog post,  he offers the following: “If you do a search on my wine reviews using the words “candy,” “candied,” “sugary sweet,” “jammy,” you’ll get an awful lot of hits, and not just for Cabernet. Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Merlot, (and) Petite Sirah;  there really is a lot of treacly stuff out there, the kind that drives the Europeans mad.”  This, from a man who evaluates thousands of wines per year.

Similarly, Eric Asimov—wine critic for the New York Times and nephew of author Isaac Asimov—suggests in his February 22, 2011, article that “Consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.”  While wines can be technically dry, he says, there is, however, a very perceptible “impression of sweetness” that results from  “dominant fruit flavors and high concentrations of glycerol, a product of fermentation that is heavy, oily and slightly sweet.”  He places California Chardonnays in the “tutti frutti” school, while Zinfandels seem sweet because of their  “intense fruitiness, “ and Pinot Noirs because of their “plush, opulent” profiles.  Asimov also stated in an earlier article, “Dry wines that are not really dry are an American tradition. As the old saw in the wine industry has it, ‘Americans talk dry but drink sweet,’ and the history of American wine consumption bears that out.” 

To be sure, I am not abandoning the rich, ripe, full bodied reds of California or similar New Worldinterpretations. They are good “sniff and sip,” cocktail-like wines, and they also hold their own with heavy dinner fare or summertime barbecues.  However, when it comes to a more refined (for lack of a better word) style of dining, I am edging away from the fruit-forward, glycerol-enrobed reds that clamor for center stage attention, and moving toward those with a bit more restraint, finesse and elegance—the style of wine that supports the food rather than overwhelm it. 

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