"Easy to drink" used to be praise for wine. Now it's an insult.
Many retailers won't write "easy to drink" on sales materials, and sommeliers won't use it on wine lists. The implication is that these wines are unsophisticated. As a result, we've entered an era of difficult drinking.
"If I give [an easy-to-drink] Cabernet 94 points, I would have to spin it," says Wilfred Wong, Beverages & More cellar master and writer of most of the chain's point-of-sale materials. "Rich tannins. Soft tannins. Calling it 'easy to drink' would be an insult to wine geeks."
So what does "easy to drink" mean, exactly?
"Easy to drink" is not a flavor description; it's more tactile. These wines don't scream for attention, or tire out the palate, because they're balanced. You shouldn't notice the alcohol, acidity or sweetness because none is overpowering. If it's a red wine, it's essential that its tannins are smooth. How can these qualities be bad?
Here's what "easy to drink" doesn't mean: simple or cheap. An easy to drink wine might be inexpensive, or it might be a $500 first-growth Bordeaux. And although some easy-to-drink wines have straightforward flavors, the best are also the most complex and fascinating wines in the world -- because no truly great wine, at its peak, is actually difficult to drink.
Reserva and Gran Reserva Riojas are great examples. Once the most acclaimed wines of Spain, they're released significantly later than other red wines so that they have time to mellow. By law, a Reserva must be aged at least three years, a Gran Reserva five years. Twenty years ago, these wines stood atop trophy wine lists with the best wines of France and California -- and a major reason was that they're easy to drink.
Today, Gran Reserva Riojas no longer fetch the top prices in Spain, let alone Europe, because consumers ignore their complexity in disdain of their elegance and gentility. These are good things, people. Try the smoky 2004 Vina Real Rioja Reserva or the exquisite, Christmas-spicy 2001 Vina Tondonia Rioja Reserva (even though it's 8 years old, it's the winery's current release). If you want something culty, the 2004 Roda Rioja Reserva marries modern fruit-forwardness with a beautifully elegant mouthfeel. With these wines, you'll be able to actually taste your food.
"I want to get away from big, heavy, tannic Cabernets," says Kevin Travis, wine director for the BOA steakhouses. "They're difficult to drink, and they don't put the food in the best light. You can have an easier to drink wine that won't mask the flavor of the rib-eye. You can taste the marbling."
However, you can't fight the market, and even in Rioja wineries are now creating wines called "Alta Expresion": wines released younger, with higher alcohol levels and stronger flavors of the new oak barrels in which they ferment. In other words, they're more difficult drinking -- and these are the wines that fetch the region's highest prices.
Or consider Merlot, now the most uncool of varieties. The reason people liked Merlot in the first place is that it is gentler than Cabernet and easier to drink. Yet top Merlot producers now shrink from the suggestion that their top-end wines aren't rough on the palate.
White wines, generally speaking, are easier to drink than reds. I don't want to rant about over-oaked Chardonnays or excessively herbal Sauvignon Blancs; you can read that elsewhere. What strikes me is that whites that are easy to drink are not described that way.
Example: I recently enjoyed the 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Gris. Here are my tasting notes: "Bright nectarine, pear, very fresh tasting, balanced. Easy to drink." Here are winemaker Luisa Ponzi's official tasting notes: "Spicy aromatics of clove, grilled pineapple, beeswax and yellow pear leads to a full, creamy mid-palate with notes of green apple, quince and lemon zest. The finish is clean and long." Yow. Sounds serious, but which sounds like a more amenable companion for grilled fish?
"There is an American attitude that drinking wine is sort of like a wrestling match and it is not macho to get into the ring with a wimpy 'easy to drink' wine," wine importer Kermit Lynch says. "Better it is big, brawny, tough, and swallowing it should be an endeavor rather than an easy pleasure."
A major source of the problem is the way wines are rated. Critics taste wine in groups of 50 or more, taking one or two sips of each. Bold wines get the highest scores in this format; wines that are easy to drink don't grab attention that quickly.
If only ratings services used the "empty bottle test." At the end of a multi-wine meal, just see which bottles are completely drained. I have the pleasure of attending many such mini-bacchanalias, and it's amazing how often the kitchen staff gets to finish the highest-rated bottles. But nobody goes back and adjusts the ratings.
That said, for some influential critics, "easy to drink" is still a sign of quality.
"The ultimate goal is for every wine to be easy to drink," says Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator. "For me a wine is easy to drink if it's balanced and the elements have evolved into harmony. It can be a wine with complexity or not. 'Easy to drink' just means that those complex, fascinating elements have come together in a way that's supple or elegant."
Matthews points out that Wine Spectator rates young wines based on their potential at their peak. The magazine might give a tannic, difficult Cabernet 98 points because the reviewer thinks it will be easy to drink years in the future. But it's easy to read reviews of such a wine and believe the tough-drinking descriptions are the reason the wine scored so well. This notion is marginalizing "easy to drink" as a description only for cheap wines.
It's time to reverse that philosophy. You wouldn't praise a steak for being hard to chew, or a movie for being difficult to watch.
Here's a linguistic call to arms. Use "easy to drink" whenever you can -- when asking sommeliers and wine shops for suggestions, when blogging, and when bragging about your cellar. "Easy" is not a curse, it's a blessing.
Pleasure by the glass
This week's wine pick is as versatile a red as you can find. Read about it online.