Is it asking too much for California white wines to taste dry?
It happened again. I got another email from a winemaker who was not happy that I called his white wines “sugary sweet” when, in fact, “All three of these wines are very dry” (as he wrote), and one of them was “a lot drier than the industry average.”
This is not the first instance of this sort and I suspect it won’t be the last. It raises important questions, one concerning the sensation of sweetness, and the other concerning the language critics like me use to describe that sensation. If you think about it, this is some of the most important information we can provide: where a wine falls on the dry-sweet continuum. If for no other reason, that determines what food to pair wine with, and accompanying food is wine’s supreme duty.
I think a lot of white California wines taste too sweet. What does that mean? Well, the most obvious sweet taste is sugar (or honey), so when I review a white wine that tastes like fruit juice — lemonade, limeade, pineapple — that’s how I describe it. Fruity-juicy sweet. That does not mean I have performed a technical analysis of the wine to measure exactly what the residual sugar is. I suppose I could buy some little kit that does that, but does my job include technical analysis of wine? Where would that stop? I could send my wines out to a lab for a stripdown on brettanomyces, TCA levels, etc. but I don’t see where that would make me a better wine writer. No, my job is to describe the wine the way it smells and tastes to me, as a normal human being, so if it’s “a little too sweet and sugary for comfort” (as I described one of the winemaker’s white wines), that’s what I write.
This brings up the issue of language. We wine writers do have to be careful not to make claims we can’t prove. Thus, instead of writing, “This wine has tons of new oak,” if I don’t know the precise oak percentages, I’ll write, “Smells very new oaky” or something like that. There’s a big difference. The former is a factual statement, while the latter is simply my considered opinion. You can’t sue me for stating an opinion, last time I checked.
How can a white wine taste overtly sweet when the residual sugar is .04% or .07%, as the winemaker in question told me his were? Most wine textbooks say the human threshold for perceiving sweetness is about 0.8%. I have spent the better part of my career trying to understand this anomaly. There are many reasons, in theory, why a “dry” wine can taste sweet. One is that the taster may have an unusually acute sensitivity to even the slightest amount of residual sugar, which for me is not the case. I don’t seem to have a freakish sensitivity to anything, including TCA, for which I am happy. High alcohol too can make a wine taste sweet and glyceriney. Insufficient acidity may permit a very fruity wine to taste cloying. Caramelized oak barrel staves or, even worse, phony oak infusions also can give a sense of sweetness. There are probably other factors that could account for the impression of sweetness in a technically dry white wine, and I invite people to comment on them.
At any rate, I admit to being very intolerant of white wines that taste sweet. If you read my reviews and you come across a statement that a wine “tastes sugary sweet,” let me explain right here, that doesn’t mean I’ve measured the residual sugar. It just means what it says: to me, it tastes sugary sweet.
If you’re a white wine and you want to be a little sweet, then for crying out loud, be Chardonnay (or, forgive me, Viognier). If you don’t want to be Chardonnay, then at least be dry and scoury and minerally, not a jellied fruit bomb. If you want to be an off-dry white wine (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then be off-dry and don’t be ashamed to admit it. And, of course, you can always be a full-blown dessert wine. These are California’s four choices in white wine. Anything whose image is dry when it’s really sugary sweet is not going to get a very good score from me.