Descriptive words vs. technical terms: not always the same
My frequent correspondent, Adam Lee, of Siduri and Novy wines, emailed me to say that my description of the Mondavi To Kalon Fumé Blancs in my blog yesterday, was technically incorrect. I referred to them as “bone dry.” Adam wrote: “I don’t think they are what winemakers, at least, would call bone-dry. According to their website the two wines you mention are .97g/liter glucose+fructose and .99g/liter —which isn’t as dry as many wines seem to get naturally.”
That got me thinking about my use of certain words. “Dry” and “sweet” have been problematic for me for years, as are certain other terms I’ll get to shortly. The two salient points I want to make are that (1) when I describe how wines taste, I use commonly understood English words to get the point across, and (2) I do not have the means to send wines to a laboratory for analysis, so I cannot know precisely what the alcohol level, residual sugar, pH, acidity of anything else is.
“Dry” to me means that the wine tastes dry, regardless of what the actual residual sugar is. “Dry” means that the wine doesn’t taste sweet, especially not sugary sweet. As Adam pointed out, if a wine is high in acidity—as the To Kalon Fumés are—this helps disguise the sweetness, making the wines taste drier than they actually are. At any rate, whether a wine truly is dry, or whether it has a little R.S. and high acidity and so it tastes dry, either way, it deserves the use of the word “dry” in one of my reviews, because that’s the impression it gives. And so that’s what I want to communicate to my readers.
“Sweet” is a tricky word. It can mean a wine tastes sweet because it has a lot of sugar in it. However, many California wines taste sweet without having much residual sugar. (Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe the winemaker’s technical notes!) This is where the wine critic has to struggle with words. The way I’ve finessed this is to say something like “the wine tastes sweet even though it’s dry because it has so much fruity essence.” That’s not a particularly elegant way of putting things, but it is correct. (Oak can bring sweet, caramelized notes to a dry wine, too.) It’s important to let readers know how sweet a wine tastes; in fact, this is one of the most vital points to get across, because it’s fundamental to food pairing. Of course, most of the time I don’t know what the precise residual sugar is, so I can’t say “This wine has a lot of residual sugar.” I’ve done that in the past and had the winemaker write in indignantly to point out it has no R.S.!! So I don’t make that claim anymore. I just say “Tastes sweet” or “tastes as sweet as fruit juice” (lots of Sauv Blancs and Chards do) or something like that, and then the winemaker can’t complain, because I’m just saying how it tastes to me.
Another word I have to be careful with is “moldy.” There are different kinds of mold, of course: TCA is the best known, but there are molds that infect grape clusters due to wet weather during the harvest. Again, since I can’t’ send every bottle to the lab, I can’t say that any particular wine is moldy, even if I think it is. So I avoid that word. I’ve struggled to find other words that get the point across. “Musty” is close, but “musty” also implies a certain degree of technical analysis, so that’s problematic too. I honestly can’t come up with a synonym for “moldy” or “musty”, and that’s frustrating to me. (Of course, my point score reflects my disappointment with these moldy wines!)
This leads to the question, why don’t I simply “22” any wine that smells moldy or musty? A “22” is Wine Enthusiast’s code for making a wine disappear forever into the bowels of our database, where no living being not employed by the magazine will ever see it. Frequently, I do. However, what if a wine is just a little moldy? I mean, where it hits me as soon as I sniff it, but then after airing it blows off, and is harder to detect? This is where the critic has to make judgments. Is there still a trace of moldiness lurking there, no matter how long you air it? How do you calibrate “a trace of moldiness”? Is any moldiness unacceptable? For that matter, is any brett unacceptable? (And “brett” is another of those words I can’t really use: can’t send it to the lab for testing, so have to say “sweaty” or “horsey” or something like that.)
I can work my way around these issues by saying stuff like “Shows some off aromas.” I might add “Give it a little time to let it breathe because right out of the bottle it has problems.” Or “shows some funky aromas that never really blow off.” These are the finer points of my job, but I can tell you I worry about them. In fact, properly describing a problem bottle is sometimes harder than describing a great bottle! I guess the most technically accurate way of describing wine is to simply publish a complete laboratory analysis, but that’s not wine writing, and would be no help to consumers, which is the thing I want most to accomplish.