On the Value of Corruption in Wine


The description “fruity” has become such a positive in the last two decades that what I’m about to suggest may seem surprising, even sacrilegious. First let me say, I love fruit in wine. I just tasted Ridge’s newly released “Ponzo” Zinfandel 2011 from the Russian River Valley, and the wine has a core of fruit that’s as delicious as a puddle of jam in the center of a Danish pastry. It’s an honest wine—a really good wine. But it’s not a great wine.

After tasting nearly 10,000 wines over the last year for the NEW Wine Bible (out Spring 2015), one fact was very clear to me: the great wines of the world are not merely fruity. Fruitiness alone often comes off in a juvenile, sophomoric way—like wearing an all pink dress with pink shoes and a pink purse. Great wines go beyond fruit and are woven through with complicated, even corrupt, aromas and flavors–things like tar, bitter espresso, roasted meats, worn leather, dark spices, rocks, wet bark, dead leaves, animal fur, and my favorite, sweaty men, to name a few. I think these beyond-fruit characteristics give wine a broader, deeper sensory impact. And it’s a hint of corruption that, in the end, takes wine into the realm of the intellectually stimulating.

What’s your take on corruption in wine?

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19 comments on “On the Value of Corruption in Wine

  1. Karen,

    Could not agree more! I dig fruit in wine, but, to me, what makes a wine compelling are the ‘non-fruit’ elements that make you want to stick your nose into glass again and again and again . . .

    Cheers!

  2. Hi Karen–You are, of course, exactly right that fruit is just one trick in a great wine’s bag. And in a truly great wine, “fruit” can itself have layers, like the lemon and apple in a chardonnay, or the blueberries and black cherries in a malbec, or a whole handful of black and red fruits in a cabernet sauvignon.

    • Yes Jeff: Kind of like a great dish, where the apricot, say, comes three ways–fresh, compote, and grilled. I love it when the fruit in a wine shows multiple personalities and dimensions.

  3. Those “FF” wines are easy, lazy wines. Who can’t make a fruit forward wine in California? Wines such as that are anti-intellectual wines; once you’re finished, there’s nothing to talk about. Thanks Karen for keeping up the good fight lo these many years — as many of us have. Good, excellent, meaningful wines have to have more than fruit, in balance, to
    even be considered.

  4. Wines are a true extension of nature and they should taste as nature allowed for the grapes to ripen where they were grown. Wine barrels and other type of vessels are a place to store the wonderful wines. Aging is a continuous natural process that allows the wines to develop the fruity flavors into a complex integral delight one can enjoy with many foods. Many descriptions are written with imaginations that has little to do with the actual wine.

  5. Very interesting choice of terminology – “corruption in wine”, but yes, this is what makes the wine interesting. All the “corruption qualities” which you mentioned make the wine thought-provoking, they make you try to figure out “what”, “how” and “why”.
    One descriptor piqued my curiosity – can you provide an example of wine with “sweaty man” characteristics?

    • Anatoli: I’m an expert on that very attribute! (just kidding). But I’d say: many fantastic Riojas and Chateauneuf-du-Papes have the sweaty man appeal…

  6. Thank You, and to everyone else responding in favor. I am not the only one who thrives on more than simple fruit. By the way, I can’t stand those Danish with the fruit in the middle. I don’t make wines much like that, even my fruity sweeter ones have more than fruit. My visitors often comment my wines are like no others in Ohio, (which has going on 190 wineries). I pretty much refuse to conform to the norm here.

  7. Karen, I second Jeff’s remarks – you are 100% correct. From a winemaker’s standpoint the best analogy I have for this is that it takes a grain of sand to make the oyster make a pearl… Those who have worked with me over the years know that even when putting together cuvees for sparkling wines (not just my Syrahs or Pinots)I am never happy until I find a slightly funky lot or barrel to include in the blend. Layered complexity is what (IMHO) makes great wines. I love showing my 2004 Syrah that got a 4-star award from Decanter and a 78 points from wine spectator! New world is just starting to get beyond the “Kool-Aid” phase.

  8. I have been drinking wine since Pommard cost about $35 a case. I love your book, but “corruption” is taking it a bit far, don’t you think! “Layers” is a better word.

    • Hi Ron… thanks for your thought…but I really do mean aromas that in too large a dose would make one uncomfortable so it’s more than layers for me…

  9. I much prefer to use the word complexity. You give up some lush smoothness in return for complexity, and that includes things that do not taste like any food you normally put in your mouth.

    BTW, what % of the 10K you tasted were sweet enough to notice as sweet, not just fruity? We know that fruity is a code word for about 1% to 1.5% residual sugar.

  10. I much prefer to use the word complexity. You give up some lush smoothness in return for complexity, and that includes things that do not taste like any food you normally put in your mouth.
    BTW, what % of the 10K you tasted were sweet enough to notice as sweet, not just fruity? We know that fruity is a code word for about 1% to 1.5% residual sugar.

  11. Thanks everybody… this is a fantastic conversation. And maybe I’m too conscious of words, but for me, it really is a sense of corruption… that underlying primordial draw… that makes wine visceral in its appeal and that adds to complexity, distinctiveness and, in the end, greatness.

  12. Could not agree more!if you don’t use the word “coruption” people they don’t gonna open there eyes…fruit is imported but it must hang together with terroir in all aspects of that word.

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