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On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers demystifies three key wine terms that often confuse wine lovers: smooth, sweet, and jammy. What do these terms mean? Beavers breaks down the science behind the tactile sensations associated with these terms, how these words are used by wine pros, and more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. How are you doing? Sweet, jammy, smooth: What does it all mean? Let’s drill it down. Get your drills. We’re going to drill down on these three things.
So we got to talk about these things. Here at “Wine 101,” the big deal is to get all the information to the wine lover so that the wine lover can go out there and enjoy themselves. And they get a bottle of wine and sit with that wine and enjoy that wine in whatever way they want to enjoy that wine. Often what comes to me are these questions with terms. Because terms and wine are tough because we, as humans, try to interpret what wine is giving us, and it’s not always perfect. And then it’s a word that everybody knows, but then people interpret it in different ways. It’s kind of crazy. So let’s talk a little bit about three of the closely related terms that I get questions about all the time. What is sweet? What is smooth? And what is jammy?
They’re whatever you want them to be! All right, end of episode, bye! JK. Actually, not JK. It is really whatever you want it to be.
When you’re enjoying wine, you enjoy wine however you want to enjoy wine. If you think something is sweet, smooth, or jammy because your brain is telling you so, then that’s what it is. But we can talk a little bit about what makes our brains perceive these things. In this case, it’s what is called “tactile sensations” — sensations that you can grab onto to understand, because there is some sort of science behind it. Ooh, science. When I say tactile sensations, what I mean is the texture of a wine, which Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson puts very well: “Texture is the dimension of tasting that draws together attributes such as smoothness and astringency that produce tactile rather than flavors sensations on the surface of the mouth.” Jancis, you’ve got a way with words. Thank you.
When we’re nosing a wine or sticking our nose in the glass and trying to draw out aromas from out of nowhere — because wine is so mysterious and crazy — we’re using our olfactory bulb and our orbital frontal lobe. That’s how we’re trying to understand that. But when it comes to texture and understanding that sort of tactile sensation on the palate, we’re using what’s called the trigeminal nerve. This is the nerve that is your face. If you ever get too close to a fire and you’re feeling that heat, that’s the nerve telling you, “Yo, you might want to back away or you’re going to burn yourself.” Now, this nerve does have a connection to the sense of smell as well, but we’re not talking about that today. We’re talking about the interrelated terms you will hear in wine that are related to this particular part of your face. Astringency, body, viscosity, bitterness, acidity; these are all these tactile sensations that you can taste or feel or perceive on your palate. Of that list I just called off, its viscosity and body that we’re dealing with today. When you’re researching wine and you’re trying to understand these terms, you’re not going to find “smooth” or “jammy” in the “Oxford Wine Companion.” But you will find “sweet,” because sweetness is actually one of the most fundamental components of tasting wine. Yeast seeks out sugar. Yeast converts sugar to ethanol. Yeast dies, and there is always sugar left over. That’s called residual sugar. Sugar is a building block of wine, so of course sweetness is going to be a part of it. So let’s start with sweetness, and then we’ll build off of that.
Simply put, a wine mainly tastes sweet due to its amount of residual sugar. You’ll hear it a lot in the wine world as RS. But it’s complicated because your ability to sense the RS — or residual sugar — in wine is impacted by the other things going on in the wine; the acidity, the tannins, even the temperature of the wine. Or if it’s a bubbly, the CO2. There are other results or products of fermentation that can add to some of the sweetness and some of the body (viscosity). And that’s glycerol and pectin. They don’t contribute a ton to wine, but they are part of the building block of the body of a wine that helps you perceive this sweetness, and eventually kind of a jammy smoothness.
Glycerol, which comes from the Greek word for sweet, “glukus,” is what’s called a polyol. This is an organic compound containing multiple hydroxyl groups. I know that’s really intense, but all that really means is that multiple groups of molecules fill the space more. So it’s one of those things where it builds tactical sensations because of its multiple groups. My brain hurt trying to figure that one out. This glycerol doesn’t add a lot to the wine, but it does add some. Like I said, it’s a building block. And it’s found mostly in wines with concentrations from 4 to 6 grams per liter of residual sugar. A dry wine, which we’ll get to in a second, is usually .5 to two grams per liter.
Then there are also pectins, which are natural products of plants. It’s a gummy sort of material that is called a carbohydrate polymer. They are the gumminess of plants that helps cells come together. Actually, if you get a jelly or a jam that’s been naturally made, that stickiness in the jam is pectin. Sometimes, bigger jelly or jam brands will actually add pectin to give that gummy, jelly-jam vibe. But it really comes down to residual sugar and the other product that yeast convert sugar to, besides carbon dioxide, which is ethanol or alcohol. Ethanol or alcohol can taste sweet because it was once sugar. So the natural residual sugar in a wine is helping you to perceive the wine has some sweetness at different levels. In addition to that, if the wine has a high degree of alcohol, that alcohol is going to contribute to the sweetness of the wine. This also increases the viscosity of the wine.
Viscosity, if you remember from the first season, is the extent to which a solution resists the flow of movement. Viscosity can be perceived on the palate by the resistance of the liquid as you rinse it around your mouth. Honey is almost impossible to rinse around your mouth. And then you have maple syrup, which is less viscous than honey. Easier, but you still feel the resistance. Water is, of course, less viscous than maple syrup. An increase of 1 percent in alcohol strength in a wine increases the viscosity by about 1.03 units. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it starts to become more perceptible the higher up it gets. Is perceptible a word? Like I said before, a wine that has less than 2 grams per liter of residual sugar is considered a bone-dry wine. But with this alcohol situation happening, if that wine that has less than 2 grams per liter has a high alcohol content, it’ll actually be perceived as sweet. This is why it’s complicated.
All of this is perceived in addition to everything else happening: the astringency, the acidity, some bitterness, and all the other phenolic compounds that make up wine. With everything that I just said — the viscosity, the sweetness, the pectin, the glycerol, the alcohol, the residual sugar — all of these elements in different proportions will actually give your palate the sensation of smooth and sometimes jammy. That’s what’s tough, because smooth and jammy are very general, and not clearly defined terms in the wine world. It’s literally something that you say that comes to your mouth when you sip a wine. The smooth and jammy vibes stem and arrive at your palate through the persistent perception of sweetness and viscosity.
That’s why there’s no hard and fast rule, because every wine is different. Every wine’s level of viscosity and richness of sugar and sweetness is different. You can just enjoy wine and then, when you understand sweetness and viscosity, you can come up with it yourself: “OK, this is a smooth wine”; “this is a jammy wine.” If your brain says that, you might even want to look into the wine to see how much alcohol it has, to look up to see how much residual sugar it has, and get an idea of how that wine was made. So then you have an idea of what you said was smooth or jammy.
Something to keep in mind: Sometimes, there’s a stigma on the word “sweetness” or a sweet wine that’s not really made to be sweet like a dessert wine. There’s a perception of sweetness in wine. But that’s OK because that is one of the fundamental things we use in tasting wine. Yes, there are wines out there that are very sweet. I just said that bone-dry wine is less than 2 grams per liter of residual sugar. When you get up to 4 to 6 and above that, it’s going to be sweeter. There are wines on the market right now that are upwards of 20 grams per liter of residual sugar. That is a very smooth, very jammy wine, because it probably has a higher alcohol like 14 or 15. So you’re getting this soft, jammy, smooth feeling red wine, where the tannins are kind of melted away.
When people start drinking wine, I don’t know where you are on your journey, but I know where I was when I first started, I was drinking gasoline. I was drinking wine that I bought at gasoline stations; brands that were big, alcoholic, and sweet. That’s where I got started. That’s where a lot of people get started. So there’s nothing wrong with sweetness. The cool thing about sweetness in wine is you get to decide where your threshold is. As you get more and more into wine and try more wines around the world, the level of sweetness and the level of jamminess and the level of smoothness is going to go up and down like a roller coaster, and you get to decide where your threshold is.
It may even change. You may be like, “You know what? I really just dig sweet wines.” And then at some point you’ll try one with a little more acidity. Yeah, it’s still a little bit sweet, but it has some acidity to it, it’s broken up a little bit. Then you move on from there, or you don’t. It doesn’t matter. But don’t worry about sweet or saying a wine is sweet, because they are sweet. As long as there are sufficient characteristics like acidity to balance out that sweetness, a wine that is perceived as sweet may not always be cloying or “too much.”
So there we have it: a breakdown of three wine terms that are always front-of-mind for wine lovers who are like, “What do these mean?” So now you have a sense of it. Next time you’re drinking a glass of wine and it’s a little bit smooth, a little bit jammy, maybe a little bit sweet, you know what you’re looking at. Or I guess you could say what your palate is feeling because it’s tactile — tactile sensations. I’ll see you next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.