Thursday, December 9, 2010

What's wrong with sweet wines?

What's wrong with sweet wines? Nothing, according to Master of Wine Tim Hanni. Hanni and Virginia Utermohlen recently published a report titled Beverage Preferences, Attitudes, & Behavior of ‘Sweet’ vs. 'Tolerant’ Wine Consumers (a PDF version of the report with their conclusions is available in this link) based upon the results of an online survey. In this report respondents are separated into four distinct taste preference groups: sweet, sensitive, hyper-sensitive, and tolerant. These classifications bear more than a passing resemblance to the concept of super-tasters and the separation of individuals into super-tasters, tasters, and non-tasters.

Most of the focus of the study is on the dichotomy between "sweet" and "tolerant" consumers. "Sweet" tasters prefer fruitier wines with residual sugar, and tend to be younger and female. "Tolerant" tasters prefer powerful if not bitter, astringent wines, and tend to be older and male. In fact, the description of the "tolerant" taster seems to match the stereotype of an older guy who's a wine snob and shops by point ratings. According to Hanni and Utermohlen's conclusions, "sweet" tasters are very sensitive to non-sweet flavors like bitterness thus need residual sugar to offset these flavors, while "tolerant" tasters have a high sensitivity threshold for bitterness, astringency and the burn of high alcohol.

I can certainly identify with the issues related to "tolerant" tasters dominating the world of fine wine criticism. Older male critics like Parker and Miller seemingly will tolerate any level of extraction and oak, and favor raw intensity and power over other more delicate expressions. It is clear the "tolerant" taster is understood to have learned some of his preferences given that it is stated the language for marketing wines to him is "point ratings, complex, bold, intense." Knowledge of point ratings implies the "tolerant" taster reads or follows some critics like Parker or magazines like Wine Spectator. Thus, this group clearly is not basing its interests solely upon intrinsic tastes, but upon learned preferences as well.

Yet the "sweet" taster is defined in such a manner that it appears he buys wine based solely upon his own taste with little regard to external influence. The "sweet" taster seems to have less education about wine, which undoubtedly influences taste preference. At the same time, though, cultural influence from the prevalence of highly sweetened processed foods and soft drinks in the US is not discussed in the report. My hypothesis is that much of the preference for very sweet foods and beverages results from conditioning. While individuals are less or more sensitive to bitterness according to the results in this report, it is also likely they may be less or more sensitive to sweetness. Hanni and Utermohlen argue "sweet" tasters are more sensitive to bitterness, acidity and astringency, but I suspect that it's just as prevalent that they are less sensitive to sweetness.

The report ultimately seems focused on how to sell wine to "sweet" tasters in the most expedient fashion. It even suggests that "sweet" tasters are under-served by the wine industry. I disagree with this conclusion. Walk into a grocery store and pick a random wine off the shelf. Typically you will find a fruity, slightly sweet, often vanillified wine with low acidity and very little tannin. This is precisely the type of wine that appeals to the "sweet" drinker based on Hanni and Utermohlen's definition of this classification. In fact, by volume most of the wine produced in the US seems to be targeted towards the "sweet" consumer.

Moreover, I disagree that "sweet" consumers cannot or should not expand their horizons as wine drinkers (not to mention food eaters). In some sense "tolerant" tasters are over-educated, while "sweet" tasters are under-educated. While individuals should ultimately buy what they like, it's important to understand that a Nebbiolo by nature tends to be tannic and Sangiovese by nature tends to be acidic, for example, and wine that isn't manufactured as a processed food varies from vintage to vintage. Wine appreciation is a synthesis of both personal preference and understanding of regional, varietal and vintage expression. I personally love sweet foods like fresh fruit, candy and chocolates, but also understand that these flavors don't necessarily belong in every wine.

Returning to the original question, I agree with Tim Hanni that there is nothing wrong with sweet wines or "sweet" tasters. In fact, many sweet wines like Sauternes, Port, demi-sec Vouvray and late harvest Riesling are considered among the most noble, long-lived and great wines in the world. The key here is to educate "sweet" wine consumers that these are unique wines because of their production methods, aging capacity and complexity. While there is a certain stigma attached to a preference for sweet wine, the generic White Zinfandels and sweet Muscats that sweet wine drinkers regularly purchase are treated quite justifiably as ordinary wines. They're the vinous analog to McDonald's: rich in certain pleasing flavors, be it sugar or fat, but otherwise simple manufactured consumables.

I was once there, too. Some years ago I liked something called Mattie's Perch Shiraz purely because it "went down smooth." I haven't tried it recently, but my guess is that it would be mild in acid and tannins, fruity and a bit sweet in the terms I'd use now. To look at this from a slightly different angle, I'd argue wine is about both hedonic and aesthetic appreciation. We all understand and seek hedonic enjoyment from birth, but aesthetic context must be developed. This is no different than learning about any craft, from film, to music, to sculpture, to architecture. In the social media saturated world once can click the "I like this" next to anything. Mattie's Perch was worthy of an "I like" back in the aughts. But that preference was quite separate from understanding context and this brand's place in the big picture.


Tim Hanni MW said...

Thanks for the great write up! There are a couple of important parts that bear clarification and keep in mind that you reviewed a SUMMARY of the report - the full report covers every sensitivity group in depth, sliced and diced by age, gender, confidence and other important metrics. And this is the 3rd in a series of studies covering nearly 15,000 consumers in the US, Canada and UK, all showing virtually identical results.

-"Moreover, I disagree that "sweet" consumers cannot or should not expand their horizons as wine drinkers (not to mention food eaters)." Big mistake and see Harvey Posert's remark later in my reply. This is exactly the challenge we are addressing and what is driving away consumers over time.

-"tolerant" tasters have a HIGH (not low) sensitivity threshold for bitterness, astringency and the burn of high alcohol.

- "this group clearly is not basing its interests solely upon intrinsic tastes, but upon learned preferences as well." ALL of us operate this way, not just the Tolerant phenotypes. It is always a combination of sensory physiology and learning, experiences, culture, etc. over time that determine our preferences.

-the wine education vs. consumption correlations are self-prophesizing because as Sweet phenotypes become older they simply stop drinking wine - SERIOUSLY. This just in from a SWEET phenotype who is a WINE INDUSTRY LEGEND:

"After 50 years in the wine business, my life was changed when I experienced the Hanni research and learned about my Sensitivity Quotient. Boy, do I feel better about my own wine preferences – I always assumed there was something wrong with me because I liked sweet wines!”

Harvey Posert, Author of “Spinning the Bottle”, consultant and former director of communications and PR for Robert Mondavi Winery and the Wine Institute

Also - while Dr. Linda Bartoshuk's influence and work on PROP sensitivity was HUGE in forming many of my early hypothesis it is a very narrow and limiting sensitivity market (and she will agree) - Harvey Posert was tested with PROP at Monell Senses Center, came up a non-taster and is clearly at the highest level of sensitivity. I can provide more on this if you wish.


Cabfrancophile said...

Tim, thanks for the comment. I corrected my mistake in describing tolerant tasters that you noted.

I'm not arguing for education as a sort of conversion. Rather, I see it as a broadening of horizons. Almost every wine drinker, from the snob to the casual drinker, takes the approach "I like it ergo it is good" and "I hate it ergo it is bad." On one level, this is true. But I also believe strongly that context matters. For example, a Euro snob type might bash California wine for having more fruit and lower acid than a French wine. But I'd argue it is not logical to expect most wines from a sunny, arid region to express characteristics often associated with rot and weather-induced early harvests.

I suppose I'm mostly arguing in favor of intellectual curiosity. It seems to me you are arguing for effective marketing. By analogy, I think of Hollywood blockbusters vs. niche films. Both can be well-crafted, though the latter usually asks the viewer to bring more to the film. It seems you are saying that consumers should only be marketed films like Twilight and Saw because that is what they like. I'd suggest it is important as a human beings to seek sensory experiences outside of our comfort zone. Not always, but sometimes.

Basically, I'd argue that someone who says "Kubrick is slow paced, ergo he is a bad director" or "this wine is too dry, ergo it is a bad wine" is not considering the aesthetic value. Films are an imperfect analogy given that the economics and function of critics are different than wines. Price disparity in particular is a much larger issue when it comes to wine. But I think it reflects negatively on individuals who do not attempt to understand context. I'd be willing to wager the individual you cite, Harvey Posert, though he prefers sweeter wines, still can view wines in context given his vast experience.