Wine terms: Smooth

smooth

This hardwood floor is smooth. Is that what wine should taste like?

The increasing use of the word smooth to describe wine – which is not supposed to be smooth – is one more reason why I worry about the future of the wine business

What does the word smooth mean? The absence of something rough — a definition that includes synonyms like bland, flat and mild.

So why has smooth become increasingly popular as a wine descriptor? Do we want wine that is bland, flat, and mild? Water is smooth – do we want wine that tastes like water?

I hope not. Wine is supposed to be balanced, where the various bits that make up a wine’s structure play off each other. Hence, the acidity and the alcohol and the tannins and the fruit and the oak and the mouthfeel and the minerality and everything else should be in proportion. Each bit has a part to play within that equation, and, best yet, the equation is never the same. Balance is going to differ given grapes and regions, so that balance for cabernet sauvignon from California will be different from balance for cabernet from France, just as balance for cabernet in general will be different from balance for chardonnay.

Now, things don’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal – not smooth. So why smooth?

Blame consolidation

The answer, I think, has its roots in the consolidation in the wine business. As more of the wine we drink is made by fewer companies, the logical, business-sensible thing to do is to develop a company style. That way, wine is easier to make, to market, and to sell. If a focus group likes a wine made in a certain style – say, bereft of tannins and acidity, with lots of ripe fruit – then the path of least resistance is to make all the wines in that style.

Or, as I write it in my tasting notes when I’m feeling especially curmudgeonly, smooooothhhhhhhhh.

That’s one reason why so many wines are so sweet these says, even when they’re supposed to be dry. A bit of sugar, usually in the form of white grape juice concentrate, flattens out all those rough edges. You can see this yourself with vinaigrette: Make one that’s a touch too tart, and then add a smidgen of sugar. The sugar brings the tartness into balance. But add too much sugar, and the vinaigrette turns smooth.

The irony about smooth?

Flavor, not smoothness, jump started the U.S. wine boom in the late 1970s. That’s when California introduced the “fighting varietals,” wines labeled as chardonnay, merlot and so forth. They tasted like their varietals and were fruitier and more flavorful than the blends that had dominated the market before that. I just finished a freelance story for American Demographics magazine that looks at the history of beer, wine, and spirits consumption in the U.S., and found that the success of the fighting varietals more or less coincided with the appearance of light beer, which made beer taste bland, flat, and mild.

Or, dare we say, smooth?

So it’s no surprise, said the experts I interviewed for the story, that Americans started drinking more wine, which wasn’t bland, flat, and mild. This is a trend that continued for almost 40 years, and it’s also why craft beer has been such a success – no one has ever accused a hoppy IPA of being smooth.

I wonder – is there a lesson to be learned here? When beer became smooth, people looked for something else that had flavor. Now that wine is smooth, should we be surprised that people are looking elsewhere for flavor?

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