by Gigi Dail
- In my early 20’s, I found Apothic Red Blend. French Toast, maple syrup, and berry compote notes with high alcohol I thought were to be the epitome of wine. I know, I know...Trust me, I’ve grown up since then and my tastes have changed. The major impetus for these changes however wasn’t so much physiological (although I learned that we do gain a tolerance for bitterness over time) but more out of curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.
Many of us pour a glass of wine, give it a cursory sniff and swirl, simply sit back and enjoy. We might make a general conclusion as to our enjoyment, but we don’t go about doing a full sommelier analysis. Even sommeliers don’t always do an analysis for every glass, because that would be far too exhausting. Many basic wine connoisseurs draw simple conclusions. Was it smooth? Was it delicious? Did I finish the whole bottle a bit too fast? We’ve all been there!
But what happens when we really try to get to the roots of why we enjoy wine. How do we begin to understand what we enjoy about the wine? Guiding people to the answers of these questions for themselves is part of my manifesto.
Having worked in restaurants for nearly two decades, I’ve been around wine and the people who enjoy it extensively. Since pursuing my sommelier education at San Francisco Wine School and moving to Napa Valley to learn wine production and work as a Sommelier and Wine Educator, I’ve come to notice something that haunts and disturbs me. I’ll call this the Curse of “Dry and Smooth” Wines.
Now, let me explain. I am not saying "dry and smooth" wines are a bad thing. The issue here is that when I ask an individual what sort of wine they’d like to enjoy, they commonly answer, “dry and smooth!” It truly short-circuits my sommy brain when I hear it. In my head I’m frantically thinking “most wines on the market are dry!”, “what do you mean by smooth?!?”, “red, white or bubbles?!!?!?”. Quite simply, this response doesn’t give me sufficient information to work my magic and pair a lovely wine with the guest. A large amount of empathy is my best comrade here- most people haven’t learned wine speak, structural analysis, and the endless varietal names!
My brave supposition here is this: you don’t need to learn wine speak. You just need to learn what you like and how to order it! But first- let’s tackle the accursed “dry and smooth”. If we do not understand our enemies, we cannot defeat them!
Dryness is an actual measure of grams per liter of residual sugar. It is also a perception of the drinker mitigated by the presence of tannins or enhanced by fruit aromas/flavors and high alcohol. The range for a dry wine is 0-10 g/L of residual sugar, which really does allow for a range of sweetness perceptions. In my experience, wine lists at restaurants tend to be comprised of over 90% dry wines available by the glass and bottle, with the proportion of dry fine wines on the shelf largely mirroring this. So asking for a “dry wine” won’t really help your server, sommelier or wine shop clerk find what you really want. To further complicate the matter, very fruity wines and high alcohol wines may seem sweeter, despite having less than 10 g/L of residual sugar! So how can you use this information to understand what you prefer in a wine? Perhaps when you are asking for a dry wine, you want a wine with earthier flavors and lower alcohol levels. If you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, instead of asking for a “sweet wine”, you can request a riper, fruitier wine. Coincidentally, there is an additional factor here that can help you select wines and explore new regions- climate. To oversimplify a complicated process, for red wines warmer climates produce fruitier, fuller wines with higher alcohol and lower tannins. These wines can feel pretty sweet and jammy despite being dry! Cooler climates produce earthier, higher acid wines with more distinctive tannins and lower alcohol which ultimately feel more dry. The tannins also produce a distinctive drying experience by linking with your saliva molecules and ripping them from your teeth and gums! Smooth Criminal:
While we have a very objective measurement for dryness in wine, smoothness is significantly more nebulous and hard to define. Smoothness can be a texture inherent in the grape varietal, as in the unctuous and oily marsanne-roussane blends from the Southern Rhone. Smoothness, as presented in the very informative infographics from Wine Folly, is a measure of the amount of tannin, from low (very smooth) to high (bold). The smooth-bold spectrum seems, to me, to create an odd contrapuntal experience without grounds in reality. But that's a discussion for another blog…
In my experience, when I press individuals to tell me what “smooth” means to them, I’ve received many answers that can easily be boiled down to this- smooth means it’s easy to drink. Easy-to-drinkedness seems to me to be the goal of most wine makers! If this “smoothness” is absent, it might tell me a few things about the wine. It could mean the wine is out of balance, with sharp acidity that stabs like daggers in your mouth and not enough fruitiness to carry it. It might mean the wine is too young and hasn’t reached its viticultural nirvana point yet. What it doesn’t tell me, is what kind of wine the guest would like to drink! It rules out poorly made wines for sure, but hopefully the menu at your favorite restaurant exudes a minimal level of quality that would eradicate this issue.
Now if we combine the textural elements that can make a wine feel like satin in your mouth and the ease of drinking a well-made wine, where does this leave us? Perhaps if you want a smooth wine, you prefer a low-tannin varietal for reds or a lower-acid white wine. Varietals will play a role here for sure, but in an effort to explore new wines, you can leave it open ended so that your wine host can select something fun and new for you! There are endless varietals to choose from with even more infinite possibilities in winemaking style, so you should never be want for a wine that fulfills your desires.
Now in parsing out what “dry and smooth” could mean is useful, I’d like to encourage avoiding these terms in lieu of using more useful and descriptive terms. If your goal is to select a wine you will really enjoy, the more information you can give the better. So let’s undo this awful hex and try something new.
Whenever you next drink wine, please take a second to think about the following and decide if you enjoy the experience:
Acidity: does the wine make you salivate a lot?
Oak: Are there any vanilla and sweet spice flavors?
Tannin: Does the wine dry out your mouth and taste bitter?
Fruit: Is this wine dominated by big, fruity flavors?
Minerality/Earthiness: Are there many stony, herbal, chemical, and dirt-like aromas?
Florality: Does this wine exude intense aromas of flowers?
Alcohol: Does this wine feel hot in the back of your throat and taste sweet?
Over time you will create a mental catalogue of what you enjoy. By taking the time to verbalize what you enjoy, you are arming yourself with the tools to ensure you never order a sub-par glass of wine again.
Now, lets pretend we’re faced with a wine list of ONLY French wines which are cruelly labeled by region and don’t usually proclaim the varietals within. As sommeliers, we spend far too many hours with a glass in hand memorizing exactly what varietals can be included in these defined wine regions. Most people don’t have the masochism and free time for these pursuits, so what do you do?
Here are some words that you can use to describe the above taste experiences:
Acidity: fresh, crisp, lively, dynamic, juicy
Oak: spicy, smokey, toasty
Tannin: intense, drying, bitter, high-tannin, low-tannin, moderate-tannin
Fruit: jammy, ripe, opulent
Minerality/Earthiness: earthy, herbaceous, leathery, resinous
Florality: Floral, perfumed, aromatic
Alcohol: high-alcohol, low-alcohol, balanced alcohol
Instead of asking simply for a “dry and smooth sauvignon blanc” you could try the following:
Crisp, low alcohol, minerally and aromatic white wine.
You’ll likely end up with with a lovely Sancerre from the Loire valley, which is a region that produces very crisp and minerally sauvignon blancs. However, you may also get to try something fun and new, like a lively and aromatic Savennieres, a chenin blanc also from the Loire valley. The Loire is a cooler region which produces wines with searing acidity and lower alcohol levels, so if this is your style of wine you will be finding a lot to enjoy!
One more example before I let you go until the next time…Instead of asking for a bold, red blend, try this: Ripe, spicy, and high tannin red wine with herbaceous notes.
Well, you’d be in for a treat if your host brought you a Chateauneuf-du-Pape! These red blends from the Southern Rhone in the south of France tend to have plenty of fruit and spice flavors with some resinous herbal notes and oakiness to boot. You may also end up in in the well-priced and high-value red blends from the outlying regions of Bordeaux- the Côtes de Bordeaux. Your wallet will thank you for enjoying this type of wine, as you most certainly would not be served a red burgundy, which is 100% pinot noir and more often than not, pricey!
One final and very important thought on the matter- you are in control of the wine you get to enjoy. By learning how to express your preferences, you will no doubt enjoy a wider range of more delicious wines! It’s dangerous to go on this wine journey alone- so please, take this advice with you.