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Descriptive words vs. technical terms: not always the same

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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.

  1. Steve–

    You have done a nice job of opening up the issues surrounding sweet and dry, and the difficulties wine critics get into when trying to ascribe technical measures (bone dry, for example) to a complex liquid like wine.

    Among the reasons that CA wines taste “sweet” to some people is alcohol, which brings along an increase in glycerin. No sugar there, but there can be an elevated sense of sweetness on the palate, especially at entry.

    Still, the term “dry” is both a technical term and a descriptor and Adam Lee, who we both value as a contributor to our blogs on technical issues, has come at the subject purely from the technical side.

    And, Adam is right, but he is being very picky about it. He is right that 0.98 and 0.99 grams per liter of fructose (residual sugar) are not the driest levels to which wines might ferment. Yet, he might also have pointed out that it is a level to which most wines ferment to dryness–meaning that the yeasts cannot find enough sugar to ferment at that point and simply quit.

    Another way of stating g/liter is percentage. 0.99 g/liter is equivalent to 0.1% residual sugar. That is one part in one thousand. And while wines can ferment, at times down to 0.05% RS, the organoleptic difference between those two miniscule levels is, to coin a word, “miniscule”.

    The ToKalon Sv Blcs, which may or may not be “most grand versions of their variety”, would also rate among my top wines. They are superb wines by any measure, and whether they are “bone dry” technically, they are very dry organoleptically. And with all due respect to friend Lee, that is dry enough for most palates.

    Happy New Year, by the way.

  2. Steve & Charlie,

    Thanks so much for addressing this…. I appreciate it.

    First off, let me repeat something I said in my email to Steve, and that is how much I truly enjoy the Mondavi Reserve Sauvignon Blancs. I believe I had the first commercial I-Block Sauvignon Blanc at an event at Mondavi Winery (with Robert Mondavi in attendance) and I have been a fan ever since.

    Charlie, you are definitely correct that I am being picky about the terminology. The two wines in question, with the glucose+fructose levels in the tasting notes are both dry….and I’d feel comfortable bottling them without filtration (my winemaking standard for dry), assuming everything else about them is stable.

    My picky-ness comes from the use of the terms “bone dry” which implies to me that they are more than just dry (hence the adjective), but incredibly dry. Assuming you accept my definition, these wines are not that.

    My picky-ness also comes from the paragraph where Steve wrote,

    “Dryness is the most important thing. Most California Sauvignon Blancs are a little sweet. Ninety percent of the time they have citrus, fig, green apple or other fruity flavors, with a dash of honey, and while these make for pleasant cocktail sippers (and I frequently recommend them with slightly sweet ethnic foods, like Vietnamese or Burmese, although my real preference there is for a beer made in that country), these wines are not great, nor do they aspire to be great. They are at best country wines, enjoyed for what they are. Then we come to the truly dry California Sauvignon Blancs, of which there are regrettably few. Why? I think, not because there aren’t places to grow good, dry Sauvignon Blanc, but because winemakers are afraid to make them. They believe (or their sales people and distributors tell them) that Americans talk dry but drink sweet; moreover, if the winery is exporting to Asia, the conventional wisdom is that the Chinese like their white wines with a hit of sugar.”

    Here “bone dry” or “truly dry” is contrasted with wines that are not only fruity, but have “a hit of sugar.” that’s a different standard I think.

    If a wine is “bone dry” and yet is quite fruity (perhaps it is the Sauvignon Musque clone, perhaps the location gives that character, peerhaps the leaves were stripped more, etc) then the winemaker is certainly not don’t anything to appeal to the American market or the Chinese market or any other market. They are making the wine that reflects the site. And that is, whether you like the wine or not, something worthy, IMO.

    Thanks for the space to vent!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. Charlie, thanks. “very dry organoleptically” is a good way of putting it! Happy 2013 to you too.

  4. Also… each palate is so individual, wine is simply (if I can use THAT word) subjective; regardless of pH, TA, percent of alcohol. The precise science is in the lab, the interpretation is on the palate… IMHO

  5. David Rossi says:

    Great topic. This always comes up with Reislings and Gewurtz. I can’t tell you how many US wineries say “we like to make it in a dry style like Alsatian versions”. But in Alsace it is rare to find technically dry versions. Your post made me pop over to the Hugel website and many of the wines THEY DESCRIBE AS DRY in tasting notes have 7 or even 15.1 grams per liter of RS. Many times more than Adams .97g/ltr mark on the SB, but still described as dry.

    This is all a very vague area and hard to get concensus on. If one is used to drinking Alsatian Reislings and Gewurtz(and I drink far more than my fair share) and if one thinks of them as dry(as is oft sited), then the Mondavi Fume Blanc is definitely bone dry to you.

    I think another subset of peoples definition of dry is related to tannin. I make a lot of Pinot Noir. They all around .3gm/ltr to .6 gm/ltr technically. When I pour for people I often get people saying that the more structured wines(tannin and acid)are very dry and those that are softer are sweet.

    I think we have conflated the word dry with many sensations.

  6. Steve,
    Hate to be a nerd but you can get you wines analyzed and quantify the moldiness, horsey-ness, and sweetness levels on a wine. Not endorse them but companies like ETS in St. Helena will do that for you, for a fee of course.

  7. Really interesting post. We have this issue at the winery every once in a while. We recently had a distributor tell he thought our white wines tasted “oxodized”, and the head winemaker decided to purchase an oxygen meter to test the oxygen levels of our wines. I told him that I don’t think our wines contain excessive levels of oxygen (i am at least 99% certain they don’t), but I believe the distributor was just describing the taste of the wine, not the actual scientific oxidation levels.

    My nerdy experience aside, I just want to say I appreciate your connundrum as a critic, and really appreciate this blog post.

  8. Good post.
    Yes acidity and sweetness are the components that bring balance in some wines, the Canadian Riesling Icewines being a good example, they are luscious in thier sweetness but often not cloying as the acidity can be very high which brings balance. I have had the same problem recognizing the level of sweetness in wines with high acidity, you need to try more Icewine ;)

  9. I agree with you Steve. It is difficult to make everyone happy with your opinion but I would think professionals would understand that you are applying your descriptors toward the consumer. As a wine Sensory educator, we train panelists to describe their opinions of wine using everyday terms that can be understood by everyday people. I think your using dry or sweet is appropriate. As well as moldy or musty. I also use these terms and seem to be understood quite well. Besides, it is YOUR opinion and you are not writing a Bible. Thanks for your continued expertise.

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