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We want stronger food tastes. What about our wines?

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A couple years ago, Dr. Vino wrote an influential blog post called “Is the clock ticking on hedonistic fruit bombs?” He didn’t come right out and say so, one way or the other. But he cited evidence of a “backlash” against high alcohol, extracted wines. Since then (Dec. 2007), lots of people have wondered if the pendulum is swinging away from higher ripeness and toward wines of greater finesse. I, myself, have written about this, although I’ve done so in the same hedge-your-bets way as Dr. Vino. I have speculated that cooler vintages in California (and, man oh man, 2010 is turning out to be one of the coolest yet) may be helping to bring the grapes in at lower brix levels.

Now comes an absolutely fascinating article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal with powerful implications for the wine business. With the intriguing headline “A Taste for Hotter, Mintier, Fruitier,” its thesis is that “The increased craving for intense flavors suggests that the American palate is changing.” Changing from what to what? Away from “natural flavors” and towards “intensity in flavor.” The author, Miriam Gottfried, lists plenty of examples of how steroidal flavors are being packed into our foods: “Snack chips are spicer. Chewing gum is mintier. Energy drinks are fruitier. In short, American cuisine is adrenaline cuisine.”

Gottfried bases her conclusions after interviewing a chef at a New York outfit called International Flavors and Fragrances, whose website describes it as “a leading creator and manufacturer of flavors and fragrances.” Their executive chef told Gottfried that Americans are seeking “a lot more umami,” the term popularized some years ago to describe a certain type of appealing savoriness in food. That Americans are in fact seeking more savoriness is accepted by a vice president of the James Beard Foundation, who told Gottfried, “You always need something spicier, something more, a bigger high” when it comes to food. He was echoed by a chef at McCormick’s (the spice people), who told the reporter, “Bold is replacing boring.”

I can totally accept this hypothesis. We do want more flavor, don’t we? As a longtime aficienado of cookbooks and food sections in the local newspaper, I’ve noted a trend toward spicier, bolder, richer, more layered, more complex and more savory food. Here in California, with our heavy Mexican and pan-Asian influences, our cuisine has become wildly delicious and adventurous. A good restaurant meal is a high to rival any substance I’ve ever had.

If it’s true that the American palate is changing in the direction of bigger and bolder, can it also be true that those same Americans are wanting their wines to be tamer and leaner? I suppose a case could be made. You could argue that a big, bold meal wants a companion wine to be restrained, in order to let the food star. On the other hand you could take the “like-with-like” route and suggest that the last thing you want with a big, umami-flavored dish is a thin little wine.

I’m still not ready to come down on one side or the other and make some stark pronouncement that hedonistic fruit bombs are [or aren’t] dead. I don’t know if the pendulum is swinging, and if it is, which way. We in the media tend to paint things in too-absolute terms anyway, as if everything is black or white. Of course, things aren’t. America is too big a country, and too fractured in cultural diversity, for such simplistic pronouncements to be made.

What are my own experiences with “hedonistic fruit bombs”? There are still plenty of them. And I don’t see them going away anytime soon. Of course, the word “bomb” is an explosive one. Your “bomb” may be my “chockful of fruit” delicioso. California growers and vintners have worked too long and too hard to achieve fruit perfection to turn around and throw it out the window. Cooler vintages may lower the alcohol a little bit, but not enough to reverse a generational shift, which is what we saw from the 1970s to the 1990s. The most important word in all this may be “hedonistic.” Last time I checked, it wasn’t an expletive, but a word based on the Greek root for “pleasure.” Nothing wrong with pleasure, in my book.

P.S. No new post tomorrow. I’m in Seattle for the weekend.

  1. Very interesting.

    I’d suggest that the main “accomplishment” with the trend toward fruit bombs was tannin management, supporting America’s desire to consume instantly – no waiting for aging.

    I’m hoping that we’ll see more wines incorporate this tannin management with reigning in the fruit to allow other subtleties to come into better focus, resulting in more complex, balanced wines.

    However, I’d still like to be able to reach for a knock-down, drag-out, exciting fruit bomb from time to time. I’d like a wide-ranging variety of wines in my spice-rack cellar.

  2. Um… it’s a little self-serving of a guy who works for “a leading creator and manufacturer of flavors and fragrances.” to claim we all crave more of his product, don’t you think? Thanks for the infomercial.

    This is like anti-bacterials in soap. Nobody needs them, never did. In fact they probably are bad for us. But once one soapmaker started using them all the rest had to or risk being thought “soft on germs.” Same with sunscreen: bought any SPF60 lately? It’s hella better than SPF30 – not. Recent studies may be showing that these screening agents may cause cancer. But every skin product has to have a screening agent or its competitors will be able to say they are “tougher on UV.”

    I look to what my young kids want to eat to tell me how effective these ultra-flavorants are in marketing based on real taste. They want to try stuff based on super-attractive packaging and the word “extreme!” anywhere on the label – everything from ultra-sour candies to super-spicy corn chips. Funny thing – with remarkably few exceptions they never finish a bag, and when they ask for that type of snack again they want the “regular” version.

    The American palate is not changing. What is available to the American palate is changing, as companies with small armies of flavor chemists churn out more new products from that infinite ocean of corn that they then have to somehow sell.

    I utterly reject the statement that “you always need something spicier, something more, a bigger high.” That’s not hedonism, it’s nihilism. Just ask any junkie.

  3. Spot on, Steve. And, as a Californian, you have probably noticed that CA food, and what has euphemistically been called “California Cuisine” have always had deeper flavors and more international influence than the English/French based cuisines that have dominated cooking around the world for years. But, it is not just here. Look at Spain, for example. Those great Spanish restaurants like El Bulli, Akalari and others did not make their ways in life by imitating French cooking. They brought new and deeper flavors to the table.

    I have long argued that CA wine is more appropriate for the foods we eat than for milder flavors. Our Chardonnays go with line-caught salmon grilled over grape vines, not Sole Dore. Zinfandel never saw the piece of veal scallopini it could go with. Even our Cabs want rich, meaty flavors. We don’t make much Pinot Noir that goes with fish or poached chicken breasts.

    But, that said, you and I have both noticed a scaling back to some extent in the alcohol/ripeness levels of the wines we taste. That is OK with me because I am not a fan of what tastes like prune juice to me–even if I have a higher tolerance for ripeness than those who think everything out here is over the top.

  4. Steve,
    Good topic. I think that the bigger flavors that have popped up in the last 30 years have desensitized peoples palate to flavors that are more subtle.

    If you grow up with Bubblelicious, Kool Aid and Doritos and then when you are a young adult eat Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, then you probably want the bolder flavors of Bobby Flay when you are more mature.

    Wines that would have been considered bold in yesteryear are now bland and tasteless. Heck maybe just some Tabasco in your Pinot!

  5. I suppose the typical American diet traditionally has been skewed towards relatively bland foods. And then there’s the whole processed food situation. I’d see this kind of in parallel to wine. The first step away from the bland processed products, be it wine or food, is to something intense. That might be a Power Pinot or something doused in chile peppers.

    The thing about really good food, though, is that it isn’t necessarily monolithic or super intense. Like wine, it’s about balance and layering of flavors. Some foods are simply about being bold, just as some wines are. But the presence of many flavors doesn’t imply a flavor-bomb. I’ve had quite a few Indian dishes for example that aren’t scorchingly hot, but instead are complex, layered and just plain seasoned with the right proportions of spices. Foods like this are consistent with thinking on wines needing to be dialed back.

    As far as hedonistic goes, it’s only derided because of its overuse by a handful of critics. It’s usually a euphemism for a wine that is toeing the line of being undrinkable due to balance issues, but is great for certain palates and occasions.

  6. Charlie I’m still trying to figure out if there is a scaling back of alc. Not convinced yet. Maybe.

  7. Ditto on Charlie’s reference to the lower alc trend. I hear a lot of noise about it, wineries are listening, but not to be confused with hearing. I just returned from another trip to Italy, where yes, even there alcohol levels are creeping up, but incredibly flavorful wines are plentiful under 14%, and not just the indigenous varietals, the “Bordeaux” blends as well.
    As a number of people weighed in here, balance is – or should be – the operative word, be it the foods we eat, or the wines we drink. Sadly, that equation is, well, out of balance, in many of our wines.

  8. Sherman says:

    Just like a good wine, a good meal should be balanced. That is, the spice and heat should complement another aspect of the meal (sugar, acidity, umami, whatever flavor aspects the chef wants to highlight).

    More flavors, more choices and more options for the consumer are always a good thing; they will vote with their feet and their dollars as to what they want and the evolutionary process will play out in the marketplace.

    I can now go to McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr., two fast food companies that are far from bastions of healthy eating, and have relatively healthy food options. These are good tasting, healthy and nutritious salad offerings that offer good flavors (cranberries, walnuts and apples from Carl’s; Southwest from McD’s) that were uneard of even 5 years ago.

    The rise of “food channel nation,” everyday gourmet options available to the mass market and the incidence of some increased awareness of health considerations all contribute to the trend.

    Some of these same trends give rise to more choices to the wine consumer and the marketplace will ultimately decide which players win and which players don’t win. Just don’t place all of your economic eggs in one flavor basket!

  9. williplantsman says:

    Perhaps Americans are discovering there is more to cuisine than processed foods, or bland meat and potatoes. The trend toward local food acquisition has allowed Americans to discover how truly fresh foods are richer in flavor and textural qualities, leading to more enriching dining experiences, even at home. Cultural diversity has led to discovery of new foods and broader dining experiences. The produce departments in big box stores have broadened their selections from less than 100 items 20 years ago to an average of over 450 items. Americans are simply discovering the reality that they have more choices and are excersizing their power to make better choices.

  10. The mistake here, and the one that is generally made across the board in this country, is that less ripe equals “tamer and leaner” or “thin little” (i.e., less flavor) wine, and more ripe wine equals more flavor. The question is do you equate dominant fruit forward flavors and alcoholic sweetness as more flavorful, or is layered complexity more flavorful? My experience is that less ripe wines are not categorically subtle, but can be boldly complex and multi-layered from start to finish.

  11. Scott, I agree. I think that California vintners are trying to achieve more complexity at lower brix. They need to deal with California’s climate in order to do that. This has been called the holy grail of California wine: achieving ripeness and complexity at lower sugar levels.

  12. Steve – The question is what is ripe or ripe enough? Are grapes ripe when the resultant wine is not vegetal or “green”? Some level of vegetal, or let’s call it herbaceous-ness, is very appealing to some and can bring tremendous complexity. And the bottom line is a less ripe cab, for example, will likely have more gripping tannins even if the green pepper flavors are gone. For me tannins are appealing, even necessary, but in general they have been demonized by the media.

  13. Steve,
    In spite of California’s ability to extend its growing season into mid-autumn, with relentless sunny weather and max temps in the high 70’s (see October average highs for Boonville, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Calistoga, Santa Helena, Scotts Valley, Livermore, Soledad, Paso Robles, Santa Ynez, Temecula…), that result in soft wines with great density, low acidity, good fruit weight and high alcohol, I notice two distinctive currents in Californian winemaking for high-end wines.
    The first relies on over-ripe, almost shriveled, grapes, anaerobic fermentation, a short fermentation/maceration (7-10 days) period, light pressing with some residual sugar to avoid seed breaking and excess astringency, and malolactic and aging taking place in 100% new oak barrels for no more than 12-14 months. The second, uses physiologically ripe grapes, open top fermentation tanks, long macerations, fermenting to dryness, and aging in a combination of new (usually 25-50%) and used French barrels for more than 16 months. Both employ micro-oxygenation to a certain extent, to avoid harsh tannins.
    The former winemaking style (the “hedonistic fruit bomb”), which came into vogue in Australia, is by far more popular and in greater number, and has become the epitome of California Cabernet; the latter reflects the old-world/Bordeaux style and appeals to consumers who like to drink wine with food.
    Even though it is (technologically) possible to make wines in California in whatever style the winemaker feels like, the wines made in both ways described above will always have one thing in common; they’re made with California fruit. And will, or should, invariably reflect this fact.

  14. And lest we forget, less ripe does not automatically mean boldly complex and multilayered. It can also mean thinner, leaner and less expressive with green, underripe flavors. Scott, do you remember the so-called “food wines” of the early 1980s? They were intentionally less ripe because no less than the NY Times said CA wines would not go with food. So, we got “food wines” with no flavor. During the 1970s up to 1980, most wines in CA were under 14% alcohol. The food wines were closer to 12.5-13.0. What boring crap that was. But, here is the funny part. European wines are now as ripe or riper than CA wines of the time. They are more fruit forward than ever, yet we still here this old bunkum that European wines are complex and CA wines are simple and sweet.

    Think about cantaloupe. There is a point at which the greenness leaves cantaloupe and the is replaced by more enjoyable flavors. Yet, done right, there is still plenty of acidity and vitality. Grapes are not immune from that equation.

    This debate has been going on for decades here in California. But, it is not just here. Think back to, or go read about, the great Bordeaux vintage of 40 to 70 years ago. They were all vintages in which high ripeness was achieved–and the greateat of them like 1947 and 1982, were darn close to CA levels of alcohol. So, too are the Right Bank vintages of the 2000s.

    It is not forward expression that is the problem. It is the loss of complexity. However, here again, we have a poster who simply suggests that all CA wines are fruit forward and tasted of sweet alcohol rather than more intensely of the grapes from which they are made. And in the very next breath says that wines like Staglin or Hobbs Beckstoffer Cabs or Williams Selyem or Merry Edwards or Dehlinger Pinots or Freestone or Chasseur Chardonnays are lacking in complexity when clearly they do not.

  15. Scott, you ask an important question. I don’t think there’s an objective answer — no magic number to tell the winemaker when to pick. That remains a subjective impression. The best winemakers walk their vineyards at harvest time, chewing on grapeskins. I do like a little herbaceousness in Cabernet Sauvignon, but not too much — also the problem of overcropping enters into the equation. As for tannins, yes I have “demonized” them when they are excessively green, but I believe I can tell the difference between unripe and a ripe tannins. If I think a wine with strong but ripe tannins has enough fruit and acidity for balance, I suggest aging it.

  16. For me, it’s very simple. When I eat intensely flavorful foods, I drink a wine with a similar profile (think a big CA Zin with chili or spicy Indian food. When I eat something more subtle, I pair it with a more subtle wine. I’m a foodie and a wine-know and I enjoy making great pairings. I am dismayed when I go to wine dinners at friends’ homes, only to find that it really is a competition to see who can bring the biggest, most alcoholic red wine. A cult Napa cabernet with vegetarian lasagna? I don’t think so.

  17. Wine-Know: totally agree.

  18. Great topic! I’m obsessed with Asian cuisines–I like having all 5 flavors in my dishes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami) along with different textures.

    Allowing the food to be the star is definitely my preference. A truly incredible meal is one where the wine wasn’t overpowering and there wasn’t a conscious distinction between the food and the wine. It’s a complete experience.

    Perhaps it’s less about the boldness of fruit and more about complexity and overall satisfaction. We’re overwhelmed with choices and have the world’s cuisines at our fingertips. When we can choose foods that satisfy all 5 flavors why not expect the same complexity from our wines?

  19. Kady, for me the best meals are those where the wine makes the food taste better, and the food makes the wine taste better! I think that’s the “overall satisfaction” you’re talking about.

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