High Flavour in Wine

by Al Drinkle

We’re very happy with the success that we’re having with German Riesling, but our work is far from over. With more and more countries and regions exporting quality wine made from a multiplicity of grape varieties, today’s wine consumer has a luxury of choice that would have bewildered previous generations. But if variety is the spice of life, it can also distract from the fact that certain wines possess an intrinsic profundity and peerless pleasure-giving capacities that others could never achieve. If you need a refresher on the reasons why Riesling stands alone at the very top of the list, click here.

Catching up on Art of Eating issues on a recent day off, I was captivated by an article by David Karp entitled The Elements of High Flavour in Fruit. Karp states that the term “high flavour” was once the most emphatic praise for fruit and can be found in more than 20,000 pomological books and articles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He asserts that the definition for high flavour in fruit is simple: “it describes fruit whose flavour is particularly rich and intense usually because it is high in sugar, acidity and aroma.” Karp uses several specific examples to develop and support this definition throughout the lengthy article that follows.

I sat with a glass of Riesling and read the mouth-watering, “high flavour” descriptions of fruit after fruit, almost all of them being heirloom varieties whose cultivation has been more or less abandoned due to meagre yields, lack of visual appeal or incapacity to withstand travel and extensive storage. I longed to be able to sample these as I read but Alberta in January isn’t exactly a Mecca for esoteric fruit. Settling for the tantalizing wine in my glass, I had an idea… I began reading the article again but substituted the word “Riesling” for “fruit” each time I came across it, and wasn’t surprised that the myriad virtues that Karp praises in fruits of “high flavour” are also the hallmarks of great Riesling.

Karp claims that taken individually, the acidity and sugar in fruit is irrelevant and it’s the perfect interplay between the two that make for noteworthy flavour; the presence of a haunting aroma makes the experience transcendental. He quotes Edward Bunyard, an early 20th century authority on fruit who states, “in apples it is noticeable that all the most esteemed sorts have a good proportion of acid, and it is the blend of this sweetness and flavour that renders them attractive, the merely sweet being as nauseous as in humankind.” And in heyday of high flavour, which coincides with a period of time when top German Riesling was worth as much as First Growth Bordeaux, wealthy connoisseurs of fruit would populate their estates with top apple and pear varieties and make a social occasion of sharing prime examples of the latter with fellow hedonists in the same way that my sybaritic friends and I might get together to enjoy a special magnum of Riesling.

One regrettable similarity between high-flavoured fruit and Riesling is explicated in Karp’s suggestion that “when a fruit is intensely, distinctively flavoured, it may appeal to some people but not others, and it is easier for marketers to offer blander varieties that are inoffensive to the greatest number of customers.” This reminds me of a dinner that I had with a group of winegrowers from the Lake Garda area in Northern Italy last year. When discussing the occasionally-pleasant but all-too-often-insipid wine from Custoza on the south shore of Garda, I was told that the vast majority of exports are destined for Germany… WHAT?!?!? Well I guess that Germans who lament the fact that their ubiquitous local wine just has too much flavour can be thankful that innocuous wines from neighboring countries are readily available. Not that one should only drink Riesling (even I indulge in other wines on a regular basis), but I refuse to quietly submit to a world where “inoffensiveness” is a valued over brazen expressions of purity and beauty.

Admittedly, the virtues of Riesling advocated here are most applicable to the off-dry styles which are perennially and inexplicably unfashionable, as if enjoying perfectly-balanced sweetness in a high-acid wine is akin to lacking sophistication. In fact the opposite is true - the high aromas and flavours of world’s best off-dry Rieslings are amongst the most dignified, complex and enjoyable expressions of nature in any consumable product.