Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New Red to Brown feature: 'Fact or Fiction' Topic 1 - 'Savaging Sweetness’?

Below is the first of a semi-regular series of posts to encourage further debate or discussion about a particular wine topic. In a way, it reflects the banter that goes on between Red and myself at a tasting, dinner or any related function where wine is being discussed or consumed . All thoughts and opinions are welcome.

‘Savaging Sweetness’?
Looking over our tasting notes, and the notes of many other published and amateur wine writers / bloggers, it appears that sweetness in wine is seen as a negative characteristic, and not only when it is in the overt ‘syrupy’, ‘cloying’ range (note: I am thinking more of dry table wines, rather than those intended to be made in a semi-sweet / off-dry/amarone style). Given that many of the highest selling wines tend to be sweeter than they are savoury, it brings me to the first RedtoBrown Fact or Fiction Question:

Fact or Fiction: Is the existence of sweetness in table wine treated by wine critics and bloggers in a similar way to the existence of bacteria in the water we drink – tolerable, though only at minute levels?

Is this true or false? Is sweetness derided so strongly by many/some? Is there a common tendancy to tolerate sweetness to a point, but go to town if it is obvious / put a caveat on any good wine that is sweet? This observation throws up some related questions/hypothetical questions, such as:

• Does a red wine have to be savoury, or at least have a spine of savouriness running through it to be considered top quality?;
• If the ‘savaging of sweetness’ does exist in wine writing, is it driven by snobbery/elitistism?
• Is a red table wine with overt sweetness considered flawed from a viticultural and wine making perspective in every instance?
• Is the number of sweeter wines being sold a result of the region the grapes are grown (eg high crops, irrigated vines, dry, warm climate) or is it a result of consumer demand for this style of wine?
• Will the tastes of consumers in the premium bracket change to once again seek out sweeter table wines?
• Has Robert Parker Jr had a positive/negative impact on the appreciation of sweeter wines (or any other critic, including those who praise super-savoury wines)?

While the questions will not keep Andrew Jefford or Jancis Robinson awake at night (and have no doubt been posed 1000 times before), I hope they generate some thoughts for some. Interested to hear your view!


Jeremy Pringle said...

Fist of all - I cannot answer any of the questions posed above, but I am always happy to see people question perceived notions of cultural capital in wine.

For me personally?

- I'm mostly interested in wines that have multiple dimensions. So if a red wine has fruit sweetness, I like to see some earthiness or sour/savoury/tangy characters etc along with that. A red wine that is entirely fruit sweet loses my attention quickly.

- I'm almost never in the mood for American oak, so that's another issue, as it generally will impart sweetness.

- I'm no sommelier, but I generally find red wines with some savouriness etc to be more enjoyable accompaniments to the food I like to eat. And I like to consume wine with food.

- I don't like noticable residual sugar in red wine.

Just a few personal thoughts to get the ball rolling.

Andrew Graham said...

I'm speaking for myself here, but I'm quite a fan of well judged sweetness. Off dry Riesling sits easily with me and I quite like dessert wine + Muscat though so I'm not afraid of sweetness.

Ultimately the key to sweetness remains balance, an element that is both intangible and utterly subjective..

Brown said...

Hi Jeremy
Thanks for your comments. Many of the questions were rhetorical, and your first and third point is probably true for many people who consume wine above all other alcoholic beverages. For me, I tend not to enjoy a wine that is one dimensional (and not just in regards to sweetness), other than for rare curio value.
As for enjoying wines with food, I am no sommelier / food-wine matching expert. However, I find it easier to match a savoury wine with food, though alcohol, acid levels and intensity are what I focus on with the sweeter (and other) wines I may serve (eg: a 17% Fruit bomb Shiraz will not go well with all but the richest dishes, though a sweet-fruited Shiraz that has enough acid and not as obvious alcohol heat could match with a few more dishes, though nowhere near as many as a nice Pinot).
As for American oak, and its imparting of sweetness, it is an interesting topic that we have touched on in some reviews. I personally do not mind a wine made with intelligent use of American oak, however the consistent trend of using more French oak (and less new oak more generally) is a good one across the board (unless you absolutely love coconut, vanilla and chocolate above all other scents and flavours!). I am interested to see if the use of American Oak is in terminal decline in Australia, or whether the balance will be addressed in a few years time as consumers seek out something ‘new’, which is essentially old!.
More generally, thanks for getting the ball rolling. The subjective nature of wine is such that the different opinions and views add flavour to the debate (as-opposed to someone trying to tell me that the Parramatta Eels, Port Adelaide Power and Liverpool FC are not the greatest clubs in their respective codes: the Brown part of RedtoBrown will not stand for that type of debate!)



Brown said...

Thanks for your comments AG. We are in agreement as well. Balance in wine is very intangible and subjective, yet so crucial to ones enjoyment of the wine. A balanced wine for one critic (eg Bob Parker Jr) might be considered the antithesis of balance for another.

PS - 'well judged' is a great wine term - the viticultural and wine making input is (self evidently) crucial in making nice wines. For me this is clearly displayed when I try a wonderful wine from a poor vintage.



Red said...

To throw my two cents in, and change tack a bit, I'd argue that great table wine generally has an element of savouriness (or at least build those more savoury flavours with time in the cellar).
I enjoy and regularly drink wines with plenty of fruit sweetness, but for me to be really excited about the wine/want to cellar it, it needs to at least give me the sense that savoury components will develop with time

Brown said...

Agree with you AA, and my first thought if there is unbalanced fruit sweetness in a wine is "will this go porty with age?", especially if there is no tannin/oak backing it up (some of my early cellar experiments went this way!). I imagine many people put fruity, highly enjoyable wines in the cellar based on how nice they are young, only for them to emerge as soupy, dead-fruited wines. The same can also go for savoury wines in the reverse though, with some I have had losing any fruit that was evident and just getting more savoury/bitter with no complexity building (though I would be more prepared to cellar a savoury wine than a sweet wine!) The joys of this beverage I say.

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