Folks, summer is upon us. And in the hot season, you’re just naturally going to gravitate toward stuff that’s Best Served Cold… at least wine-wise. Put away the Cabernet. And do not fear Wine That Is Pink for lo, I bring tidings of comfort and joy for Dudes everywhere:
There is not “girl” wine and “boy” wine. You are free! Drink what tastes good to you and do not question your testosterone level over your penchant for what way too many wine writers still refer to as “feminine” wines. Stay tuned for a forthcoming “Beer Drinker’s Guide to the Confusing But Amazing World of Wines that Are Neither White Nor Red” and I will break this down for you even more, but meanwhile, it is time to address one of the last strongholds of Gender Ass-hattery, which oddly enough hangs is shingle here in Oenophiladelphia.
Wine has no gender.
Say it with me: There is no such thing as a “chick drink.” And please do not scream “Appletini” or “pomegranate cosmo” or Midori or Nora Ephron or the Ford Mustang; This is a wine issue and I am confining my remarks to it. (That said, this chick is happy to throw down with anyone on gender, marketing and the avocado, Batman movies or where the crossbar is located on one’s bicycle and why).
This poor old horse has been, to quote my Texan ex-boyfriend’s mother, “rode hard an’ put up wet.” Let’s table (stable?) the whole thing right this minute! Light-bodied, pale-hued, delicate-nosed wines are not “feminine.” Chewy, tannic, saddle-and-cigar wines that are dense and opaque in the glass are not “masculine.” They are, certainly and often markedly, different.
Pizza is different from scrambled eggs, which is different from steak bordelaise, which is different from Miyagis on the half shell with mignonette, which is different from sweet potato fries with smoked paprika salt. Each of which would take a different wine pairing and each of which deserves that wine pairing to be thoughtful.
I am not a purist or a traditionalist about wine—I think affinities are complex and you’d be surprised at what can go with what on what occasion. That’s an opinion, and it might be yours that hot dogs are masculine and tofu is feminine, or that girls drink sweet wine and boys drink dry wine, or whatever. And you know what they say about opinions. Everyone has one. So here’s mine.
As a fanciful, metaphorical descriptive language people might label wines that are lighter, exhibit more floral notes, or are… well, pink, (which is after all a GIRL COLOR. Right?) as “feminine.” Uh. “Masculine” wines, on the other hand, are generally those of heavier body, higher density, more intense tannin structure and notes of hard stuff, like stone and leather and wood. Uh… You want an interesting generalization you can take to the bank? Find 100 wine writers and count how many of them use the terms masculine and feminine in their descriptions. Are more than—um, ZERO—of these writers women? I bet they’re not. Genderization of beverages may indeed be a gender specific trait. Pinkness, florality, “chewy tannins” and “cigar box” are not.
There are some grapes that seem relatively adroit at avoiding being be-gendered by wine-describers (the pinots come to mind). But I recently had a drink with a male friend who literally apologized to me for his preference for off-dry whites. He ordered a Viognier. It was a little too off-dry for me, but it didn’t put me in the mood to weep over Sleepless in Seattle or drive a Mustang.
Now, men are by definition not women, and vice versa. Red wines are not white, and vice versa. And in both categories, and let’s be clear that with over seven thousand known varietals there’s a lot more going on than red and white or light and heavy or flinty and flowery; indeed there are almost infinite variations of character. Male and female not only suggests a binary dichotomy doesn’t really exist, but it is really… well, rather dismissive. Lots of women are flinty and lots of men are flowery. Delicacy and restraint are not gender specific. Brashness and density are not gender specific. I’m a teensy bit concerned that using these terms might even lead to… oh, unsavory and unfortunate stigmatization of perfectly awesome wines because dudes think it undudely to consume them (The Quiche Conundrum).
So what do we call wines to indicate the characteristics that sloppily get shunted into the buckets of “masculine” and “feminine?”
Instead, let’s do this. Every grape has a set of traits that are enhanced or subdued by environmental factors. And handling. Just like people. Of any gender. In identifying what you want in a wine it is important to be able to understand those characteristics so you can pull a bottle off a shelf with some confidence that you are getting what you want. Following are a handful of examples of what we might be calling wines instead of “masculine” and “feminine.” This list is short, incomplete and wildly oversimplified but whole books can be written on this subject and in fact many have been. I’m not going to put you through that; you have drinking to do.
(These wines are relatively ephemeral, don’t have a long, pronounced finish, quaffable, on the youthful and uncomplicated end of the spectrum. Often because they have not been aged for long; sometimes because it is that grape’s nature.)
Red: Gamay Beaujolais. Lambrusco. Cinsault. Grenache. Sometimes, but not always, Pinot Noir.
White: Soave (unless aged). Pinot Gris. Sancerre. Verdicchio. Sauvignon Blanc. Gewurztraminer (sometimes. It can also be syrupy.)
Heavy or Full-Bodied Wines
(These are the guys you store for years and they keep developing in complexity while you’re not even looking. Higher tannin content, higher alcohol content. Often, a broader range of sub-flavors and a longer finish with a richer, denser mouthfeel. Opacity – like you can’t see through the glass. Most really full bodied wines come from red (black) grapes, but whites have their own spectrum)
White: Chardonnay, especially if it’s from Napa (less so if it is a French “White Burgundy”), Viognier, Meursault, Chablis (A French Chard that proves there is always an exception.)
Red: Touriga, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nero D’Avola.
Wines that have a Pronounced Floral Character
(Though whites are somewhat more likely to showcase flower aromas and flavor notes, plenty of reds do it too, and some of them are “light” and some “heavy”.)
White: Viognier (Citrus blossom, honeysuckle). Gewurtztraminer (roses, sometimes gardenia.). Chenin blanc (honeysuckle). Semillon (jasmine). Riesling (citrus blossom). Pinot Grigio, Semillon (white flowers; lilies).
Red: Ruché (roses). Malbec, Petit Verdot (geranium), Merlot (violets, lavender). Grenache (lavender). Pinot Noir (roses).
(“Fruit-forward” is not a synonym for “sweet” at all; many big-bad, heavy-hitting wines are bone-dry and also fruity.)
White: Viognier (peach, peach, peach), Chardonnay (when heavily oaked, tropical fruits like pineapple and passionfruit as well as a metric ton of vanilla and butter. When unoaked, predominantly lemon, often apple or pear), Pinot Blanc (apples, pears, peaches, quince).
Red: Primitivo and Zinfandel are famous for their strong blackberry character. Pinot Noir (cherry, berries). Merlot (plum), Ciliegiolo (sour cherry), Syrah (blackberry and mint), Beaujolais, (raspberry, cherry), Lagrein (figs, blueberries)
Wines that are Sweet
(Lower alcohol; more residual sugar. Can have a bright and juicy character or rich and syrupy, depending.)
Riesling. Gewurztraminer. Muscadine. Muscat. Tokaji. Vouvray, sometimes Viognier, Semillion. Anything “late harvest,” “fortified,” or “Ice-wine.”
Very Dry Wines
(High alcohol, low residual sugar, can be tannic, astringent, tart, or “mineral”)
White: Sauvignon Blanc, Falanghina, Albarino, Pinot Gris, Muscadet, Soave, Etna Bianco, Greco di Tufo.
Red: Malbec, Mourvedre, Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc), Tempranillo, Barolo, Sangiovese (and by extension Chiantis and Supertuscans which are mostly Sangiovese), Aglianico.
I have left out somewhere in the neighborhood of 6000 wine grapes and said little to nothing about how any of them can morph into almost anything by the process of sorcery we know as winemaking. But you get the gist. You don’t need to refer to wine that is delicate and restrained with a nose full of rose petals as “feminine,” nor a heavyset, tannic, bold-flavored wine as “masculine.” It’s lazy. Wine is more complex than that. And frankly, so are people.
Gentlemen, you may now uncork your Gewurztraminer.