Q&A: Helping My Dad Find Wines

My dad recently sent me the following request:

I am looking to having a glass of wine daily, to accompany Mom.
Please recommend a nice, low priced red wine, not too dry, more fruity, and sweeter than normal. Manischewitz is no longer doing it for me.  ;-)
As you know, I really do not like the taste of alcohol, but a nice wine would do the trick.

As a bit of background, my parents aren’t complete teetotalers, but they also aren’t big drinkers—especially my dad. He’s actually the bigger lightweight of the pair—two beers and he’s feeling it for sure. My mom will enjoy wine in the evening, and has definitely been getting more into it as I’ve delved more deeply into wine over the years. I may have been a bad influence.

However, I digress.

A few things struck me as interesting about my dad’s question and worth addressing here, particularly because what he’s describing is actually where most of our palates start. It certainly is where mine began.  Also, the types of wine he’s looking for tend to be the “crowd pleasers,” which is what we’re often looking for during the Holiday Season.

Also, my dad’s question demonstrates a few common problems people run into when describing what they’re looking for. His description is not at all unlike what I used to ask for at wine bars and restaurants before I dived into wine studies: “I’d like something that’s not too dry and a little spicy.” The problem is that I was using the wrong terms.

I now know that what I meant by “not too dry” was actually that I wanted something "fruit-forward with soft/smooth tannins." Similarly, my dad says he wants something “fruity, and sweeter than normal.” Fruity is the right term, but the term "sweet" would possibly get you into the dessert wine range, which might not actually be what you’re looking for—as he wasn’t.

So what’s the difference? What are you talking about? What’s all this jargon?

Let’s piece it out. There are a few structural components at work here:

Sugar Levels  (Sweet/Dry)
— When we talk about sweetness in wine, this refers to the actual sugar content in the wine. Most table wines are considered dry. There are some exceptions to this—for example some Rieslings and other aromatic whites are “off-dry” or have other varying degrees of sweetness, but are still meant to be served with main dishes.  Also, a lot of wines, particularly mass-market brands, are made with a hint of sugar in the mix—we refer to this as “residual sugar”—but even these, are generally considered dry. Once we start talking about sweet wines, we’re starting to get into dessert wine territory.

Fruit Condition—
As I mentioned, from my dad’s description “fruity” is the right term for what he’s looking for. How does this differ from sweetness?  Well consider these two food examples:  Lemons or berries might be used in the filling pie, but they might also be used in savory sauce to top a piece of meat or chicken. They’re both fruity, but there’s a lot more sugar in that pie filling.

Also consider how the ripe the fruit might taste in the wine.  As fruit develops from under ripe, to ripe, to over-ripe, or even dried, the stage of development has a major effect on the flavor.

One other point to think about is where the fruit notes hit you as you drink the wine.  Is the fruit the first thing you taste, or does is it come into play a little later after other notes like leather, tobacco, etc?  If the fruit is the first thing you taste, it is said to be “fruit forward.” The age of the wine will also factor into how it expresses itself on the palate—the older it gets, the more likely that the fruit will take a step back and other flavors will come to the forefront.

Given the preferences my dad gave, he’s probably looking for a ripe, fruit forward wine, that’s not more than few years old.

Tannin—These also factor in, as tannins create an astringent, bitter effect on the palate, which makes the wine feel more dry. Think of how tea tastes after you’ve left the tea bag steeping too long—those are actually tannins at work.

In this case, we’re probably looking for a wine with moderate, smooth tannins.

The good news is that most wine professionals will know what you’re talking about if you use a description like my dad’s or the one I used back in the day. However, the more accurately you can describe what you want when you’re at a restaurant or a wine store, the higher the likelihood that you’ll get a wine you love.

Ok, enough of all the blah, blah, blah., I just want to know what to drink.

Alright, here are some general guidelines.

The "New World" tends to make more wines in this ripe, fruit forward style. In wine terms the New World basically means “Not Europe”—California, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and South Africa would be good places to look. (An added bonus is that South America and Australia are good places to look for deals.)

If you eventually want to cross over into the Old World, but like the riper styles, I think generally good starter countries are Spain and Portugal, and areas like the Rhône in the South of France – think Côtes du Rhône.

In addition to this, here are some varietals that tend towards these characteristics:

Shiraz (It's the same grape as Syrah, but the term now is generally used to describe a style with jammy fruit and soft tannins.)
Carmenère (This has a tendency to show green notes—I often like this one as part of a blend)

The good news is that there are lots of deals to be found in these categories.

Where’s the Cab?

Cabernet Sauvignon might be a good option, but it can tend to higher levels of tannins depending on where it’s from and how it’s made. Of course, to some degree, this can be said of a lot of grapes, but Cab naturally tends to the higher end. However, you can find quite a few New World Cabs that are made to display smoother tannins.

What about Pinot?

Again, it will depend where it’s from.  California makes a good share of Pinots that display ripe, fruity characteristics, but as a grape Pinot has a tendency to display more earthy characteristics.

Get off your high horse – when I said sweet, I actually meant sweet.

If you want something that is actually a little sweet, a Ruby Port would be a nice place to go, and makes for a nice after dinner treat and or accompaniment for cheese.

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