Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Why dry, red wines?

Why I like dry, red wines:
A reflection on the history of my palate.

In Wine Snobbery, Andrew Barr analyzes the reasons for appreciating red wine. He suggests that appreciation for dryness, tannins, and bitterness is associated with sophistication because these tastes are arrived at only after some time. Dryness is mainly a result of indundation with sugary foods in youth. While not all people lose their sweet tooth with time, the converse is rare: people no not lose desire for sweetness without the passage of some time. Tannins and bitterness, Barr proposes, invoke a sense of danger similar to that of a rollercoaster ride. Tannins are chemical deterrents to consuming a fruit before the appropriate time. Bitterness is the perception by which we identify many natural poisons.

For tannins, Barr's analysis resonates for me, especially his argument about danger: I feel a rush of excitement when a massively tannic wine rips through my palate. On dryness, I believe my desire for dry wines, or more appropriately, my impatience with sweet wines, is trifaceted: it is acquired, innate, and aesthetic.

Acquiring a taste for dryness:

Growing up in suburban California, I was subject to much of the normal sugar barrage that accompanies growing up in America, where the hamburger has fully half the sugar of a sugared doughnut (1). In addition, I partook often of mother's native Filipino cuisine, which incorporates levels of sugar in main dishes that are high even by American standards. My father's Indian heritage brought milk-based mithas (sweets) of such richness and sweetness that to my palate, no American candy compares. These might have sped up my sugar satiation.

Seemingly contrary, but to identical effect, my parents refused me certain high-sugar American staples for which, later, I never acquired a taste. Sugary cereal and sodas were not allowed, in favor of plain Cheerios and milk. My parents allowed grape juice, which I found sickening, as it lacks the balancing acidity of sodas. As a result my tolerance for sweets is even lower than my parents'.

Nature, not just nurture:

As a biologist, I know well the futility of citing one without the other. As Peynaud notes in the classic Le Gout de Vin, taste thresholds vary, and are largely genetic. I have not yet put a good fit to my thresholds of perception for sugar and sweetness, since few wineries publish residual sugar data. However I have observed sweetness at 1.1 g/L (below Peynaud's "average" threshold of 2 g/L), although I don't seem to be bothered by the taste until around 1.5-2 g/L. This number is skewed when wines contain abnormal levels of alcohol and glycerine, both of which enhance sweetness. From 1-2g, it seems my palate can be fooled with sufficient balancing acidity, but above 2g, I still percieve the wine as sugary, regardless of acidity. Drinking more than a few mouthfuls of such sweet wines is, for me, cloyingly unpleasant. While my threshold seems to be on the lower end of the the general public (especially the American public), it is by no means extreme. I am sure many share my sensitivity, if not my dislike for sweetness.

Aesthetics without snobbery:

My aesthetic appreciation of dry wines probably has its root in the way my parents referred to dry wines in my youth. My dad prefers dry reds, and my mom prefers sweet whites. For some reason I admired my dad's seemingly intellectual interest in wines and so considered his taste more sophisticated. When I actually began to drink wine, I through out these preconceived notions in a fit of anti-snobbery, but ended up in the same place. Eventually my appreciation for dryness became an "acquired aesthetic" value, the same way I have grown to love Bach more and more. I admire artistic cleanness and the paradox of restrained expressiveness. The idea of delivering complex and clear fruit tastes and aromas without the sweetness that naturally accompanies them is attractive to me. As is the idea of powerful tannins without bitterness.

And here my palate diverges from my analysis, for according to Barr, I should appreciate the subconscious danger associated with bitterness, as I do with tannins. Indeed, I like espressos straight up, and chocolate in excess of 80%, but in wines, it doesn't please me so much. But I'm still open. I had a Tannat a few weeks ago that was completely dry with strong tannins and some bitterness - and I truly enjoyed the experience. Every new varietal and region is a chance to rediscover your palate. Gary Vaynerchuk knows his. I'm learning more about mine with every tasting. Do you know your palate?

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