Throughout tonight's dinner I kept asking myself, "Is this wine 'sweet' or 'savory'?" Early on, I expected only to figure out whether the wine - the Orfila 2008 Roble Malbec - would work with the tangy chile verde and the fruity Mexican rice that constituted our meal. But just before pulling the cork I'd read Eric Asimov's column in today's New York Times.
There, he argues pretty persuasively that informative descriptions of wine more or less can be stripped down to whether the wine is "sweet" or "savory." While I agree with his premise that too many wine descriptions are cluttered and counter-productive, including some of my own tasting notes, I'm not sure that "sweet" and "savory" alone are enough, especially given his extensive explanation of what each represents.
What bothers me most about his fresh and concise approach to describing wines is that he takes a word with a long-standing definition within the wine culture - "sweet" - and tries to transform it into something broader and not as precise. "Sweet," by his reasoning, should stand for wines that don't necessarily carry obvious residual sugar but rather convey a sense of sweetness via their "dominant fruit flavors and high concentrations of glycerol, a product of fermentation that is heavy, oily and slightly sweet." OK, "sweet" may be the impression left on the palate by this combination, but it isn't sweet in the customary sense, which originates mostly with sugar remaining in the wine. I'd have been happier had he chosen "fruity" rather than "sweet" as one of his two qualifiers, and even happier if he'd settled on "sweetly fruity," a term I often use to describe a wine whose sweetness stems from the intensity of its fruit and perhaps its glycerol rather than lingering sugar.
As to "savory," Asimov nails it. On the wine-tasting spectrum, those are the sensations that suggest nuts, herbs and minerals, which in many instances can trace their origin to the texture, acid and weight of a wine more than its fruit.
His thesis, as he notes, is full of complications and contradictions. Wines are ever evolving, for one, and a release that is "sweet" in its youth is liable to be "savory" as an elder. And within the wine world are all sorts of contrarians, rebels who like to tweak an established style to accommodate their vision of what the grape or region can or should say. Exceptions abound, Asimov notes.
At any rate, he isn't dictatorial, and suggests that he just wants to give wine enthusiasts food for thought as they evaluate wine and reach their own conclusions about character and value. "The point of this exercise, after all, is not so much to label every wine as one or the other, as it is to suggest a different, simpler way of thinking about these wines. And, perhaps, to help people make their own discoveries."
By the end of tonight's dinner I'd concluded that the malbec, while fruity with suggestions of pomagranate, was actually more savory than sweet, given that it was dry, taut and snappy, with hints of both minerality and mintiness. It went well with the chile verde. But so did a decidedly "sweet" wine, the viscous and floral Uma 2010 Mendoza Torrontes, which we'd had earlier with the dish. Maybe that's the solution - serve chile verde whenever you aren't sure whether the wine is "sweet" or "savory."