June 19, 2013

Appel on wine: Let's add 'freshness' to 'sweet' and 'savory'

A couple of years ago, Eric Asimov wrote an article in The New York Times asserting that there were two metacategories for the character of a wine -- sweet and savory. Zinfandel, Grenache, California Pinot Noir and Viognier are sweet. Muscadet, Rhone reds, Chablis and traditional Barolo are savory.

It's a useful distinction, because with just a little consideration of one's own default wine choices, one can learn enough about where on the spectrum one stands to make intelligent decisions about new wines to try.

One hurdle, on a practical level, is that for the rubric to work at all one has to bounce ideas off someone else who is thinking along the same lines. If you were to ask most restaurant servers or retailers for "a sweet red, like a 2007 Cotes du Rhone," you'd meet a blank stare, despite the accuracy of your request.

But even assuming we're all playing with the same rule book, there's something missing from the binary model that Asimov has offered. I've been wondering what that missing element is ever since I read the article (yes, I'm the kind of guy who mulls over years-old conceptual hypotheses by wine writers; you wanna make something of it?), and I think I've got it. Let's add, to this distinction of sweet/savory, a third corner: freshness.

Freshness in wine is as hard to pin down. Its fruit jumps out of the glass, only faintly distracted or veiled by tannins. It has a kind of potential-energy tension, brought on by acidity so tuned it suggests (and sometimes delivers) effervescence. "Minerality" is not metaphorical, but reminds you of actual rocks. Everything in a fresh wine is immediate.

But despite the positive connotations of the word, "freshness" in wine is not really a quality signifier. Some of the greatest wines in the world are not fresh, but rather express maturity, calm, cooked things, creaky floorboards. Conversely, some of the lamest wines are fresh: overly grassy Sauvignon Blanc, high-yield Carmenere, mass-produced Beaujolais all have that forthright, buoyant quality, but are vulgur.

Still, experiment with the notion of freshness as you trod the wine-explorer's path, and you'll tune into elements of wines at a level that will help hone your palate. Even if this conceptual framework fails to yield a fail-proof buyer's guide, it will certainly gain you greater appreciation for life's bounty and variety.

Of course it was a particular wine that brought me to this line of thinking: the Pinot Nero of J. Hofstatter, from the northeastern region of Italy known as Alto Adige, or the Sudtirol. This is the southern Alps, a German-Italian zone known for producing intense, aromatic whites and several uniquely bright, bracing, funkified reds. (Lagrein and Teroldego are the native red grapes, usually delicious, but we'll start with Pinot today because it's more recognizable.)

A sort of European crossroads, situated at the center of what once was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Alto Adige is culturally distinct, and produces astonishing amounts of delicious wine. Low in alcohol and tense in a good way, they express a direct, rugged, mountainous edge. They are the breeze blowing through your hair. Nowhere to hide. Freshness.

The Pinot Nero 2010 ($20, from Central Distributors) acts as a kind of litmus test for your attitude toward Pinot Noir. But unless you like your Pinot so Californicated that you might as well go ahead and admit that it's Shiraz, you'll fall for the Hofstatter immediately. It has the fresh, ravishing red fruit of Oregonian Pinot, but with more give and flexibility. It has the sheer loveliness of drink-'em-young vintages from Burgundy, floral and dry. It has the gentle mineral tang of what in Germany they call Blauburgunder or Spatburgunder -- blue, or late-ripening Burgundian.

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