Thursday, January 30, 2014

The difference between "sweet" and "dry" wines

It took a while for me to understand the difference in taste between "sweet" and "dry" wines. My first and I hope sensible question was, how can a liquid be dry? The distinction can still be hard to grasp, because some of the characteristics of some wines, like high alcohol levels or the presence of oak, can give a sensation of sweetness where in fact the wine's sugars have fermented away. The tannin in red wines can also leave your mouth with a dry, "chalky" feeling, even if the wine itself may have standard alcohol levels and therefore some residual sweetness in it. (No wonder the great aim of winemakers is "balance"!)

Sweetness, the wine books say, is a taste that you will recognize at the tip of your tongue, even if you hold your nose and thus don't smell a wine's fruitiness or other aromas. A dry wine will not show up, so to speak, at the tip of your tongue in that way. What made all this more clear to me was a taste of champagne.

At one of our Friday night tastings at the store we sampled four sparkling wines, just in time for New Year's Eve. One was a Moscato d'Asti, a sweet sparkling Italian white; one was a sweet French sparkler, Toad Hollow Risque, that was not champagne (no indeed -- Vin vivant, Blanquette Methode Ancestrale, the label carefully explained); one was a California champagne, Mad Annie from Woodbridge Cellars; and one was the real thing: Laurent-Perrier Brut, champagne from Champagne. (Venture to the cellar for a look at the labels.)

The Moscato d'Asti was very sweet, with an almost lemon-syrup flavor that would be great fun at a party or perhaps with a festive dessert. Toad Hollow Risque had a fresher, clearer flavor, and was a shade less syrupy. The Mad Annie California champagne smelled like tart apples, and had a plain hard feeling in the mouth that was very different from the first two wines. And then came the Laurent-Perrier. I sipped. I savored. I swallowed. And I thought: if you cooked stones in water, and then added bubbles, it would be this.

Now the French have not made Champagne the luxe gustatory goddess that it is by advertising it -- or by creating it -- as "bubbly stone-water." But that is exactly the flavor that it left in my mouth. I thought: all right, I understand. This is dry.

I didn't care for it, though it pains me to say so because champagne -- the real thing, the French thing -- seems so sophisticated that I feel I should like it. Every wine book rhapsodizes about it, and includes the delightful stories about goddess-figures like Marilyn Monroe drinking it at any hour of the day or night, or (intellectual) goddess-figures like Colette drinking it when tired, or excited, or sad or happy. It is supposed to be the perfect experience. The work that goes into making champagne is Herculean in itself. I have a new and slightly snobbish horror at what happens to whole cases of the stuff in Super Bowl locker rooms.

But I wouldn't come running for another glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut, at least, not yet. (The bubbles are a little seductive, I must say.) Experts affirm that with time and experience in wine drinking, your palate "dries out," and you develop a liking for less-sweet wines. Of course that implies that you are developing correctly in terms of personal sophistication. But, experts also say that there is definitely a modern-day stigma about sweet wines. Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger, in his usual poke-the-reader-in-the-eye style, even claims that newbies always betray themselves by insisting, all the time and anywhere, that they want "a nice dry wine." Jancis Robinson notes more diplomatically (in How to Taste) that "in recent years the mass market has been schooled to feel proud of liking something dry," and Hugh Johnson says, "The world used to drink much more sweet wine than it does today -- though there are signs that sweet-lovers are at last giving themselves permission to indulge" (How to Enjoy Your Wine).

Johnson seems to be right about our ancestors' taste for sugar. Old menus from Fannie Farmer and Mrs. Beeton advise Sauternes, a lavishly sweet white Bordeaux, with the early courses of a meal, which traditionally would have been fish. Even champagne used to be very sweet. That famous and glorious Veuve Clicquot became the rage in the 19th century when its maker, Madame Clicquot, dosed it with plenty of sugar to appeal to the taste of the Russian troops who happened to be camped in their thousands all over the province of Champagne during the Napoleonic wars. It is less sweet now.

I would suggest that, as the modern day cliche has it, it's all good. Sweet or dry, white or red, all, or at any rate some one of them, have their place in your beverage repertoire depending on the meal in the offing, the guests, your mood, and so on. What does puzzle me is the mindset of people who will not drink or even try entire categories of wine, not for any health reasons that I know of, but simply by preference. I know people who are "reds only" or "whites only." Sometimes I'd like to be rude and quiz them. Of all the thousands of wines in the world, I'd like to ask, no red -- or no white -- can ever possibly please you? You're sure?

Well, perhaps they are sure. Madeleine Kamman writes very wisely, in her The New Making of a Cook, that over the years she has learned above all to respect people's innate tastes. And who am I to judge? ... I don't like champagne.

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