The Savory Side of Red Wine
By Alex Cook
In the domain of food, the word, “savory,” is one of the most common, the most universally applicable, and somehow, the most specific. In restaurants, the two menus that are handed to guests are often labeled, “savory,” and “dessert,” for the front of house staff. You have surely heard the tantalizing à la mode descriptor, “umami” on the lips of judges on Food Network programs countless times.
When we talk about something tasting “savory,” it implies that there is a pleasant quality to the taste; after all, how often do we hear about something tasting “too savory?” Just think about the connotations of the word “unsavory.”
There is also the implication that this pleasant taste isn’t coming from the sweetness or tartness of a food. Like red wine, there is also the common understanding that many savory “umami bombs” like soy sauce, fish sauce, and parmesan, are also products of fermentation. Ultimately though, it may be best to define savory qualities of a wine in contrast to “sweet” flavors.
A completely dry wine, with virtually no residual sugar, can still present sweet flavors. These include elements that remind us of fruits mostly, ripe, dried, unripe, or overripe. Some wines can also present flavors that remind us of caramelized sugar, sweet-smelling spices like clove and vanilla, and tastes that we associate with sweeter foods, like the orange peel aroma in many orange Italian wines.
By contrast, “savory” can neatly envelop nearly every other taste that we find in our wines, including everything earthy, mineral, leather-y, chocolatey, espresso-esque, and balsamic, along with countless others. Encompassing the vintage “forest floor” note of a fine Burgundy, or the “bacon fat” of a Northern Rhone Syrah, or even the “rose petals” of Italy’s finest Nebbiolos, when you dig into the professional tasting notes assigned to the world’s finest wines you often find a dovetailing of these two flavor camps.
Similarly, because a natural wine will remain largely unfiltered, and unaltered before going into the bottle, many more of these secondary, earthy flavors will remain in the wine. If you’ve ever tasted a commercial Beaujolais, ripe with overt fruit flavors, and even bubblegum, next to a natural Beaujolais, with abundant earthen and herbal elements, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.
In many ways, savory and sweet work together in wine; one enhances the other, one gives a wine its accessible pleasure, and the other gives it depth. As a wine ages, the elements that were maybe the most viscerally attractive at first, like the quality of the fruit, begin to fade, and these underlying elements become the saving grace of the wine.
There remains the question, why do we like savory wine? Think of a wine and its respective components like players in a band, and the “sweet” fruit flavors of that wine as the lead vocalist. While some wines can get by with just the quality of the fruit, most will need those other players like acidity, tannin, and savoriness, in order to set the stage for those primary fruit flavors.
If you will allow us to extend the metaphor, think of the first song you’d put on the jukebox at a bar - it probably wasn’t an a cappella track, was it? Similarly, a wine with several distinctive yet cohesive elements will work better when paired with food. Some of the most versatile pairing wines like Gamay, Barbera, and Syrah, balance some of their more fruit-forward aspects with great acidity, and notable secondary savory flavors.
So, next time you throw a dinner party, bust out a savory, natural red, and watch the flavors dance together!