The biggest divide in the wine world isn't between high alcohol and low alcohol, it's between fruit and savory. Many people shy away from the wet earth, cedar, meat and herb qualities preferred by those who go for savory styles. Most people like fruit.
These widespread preferences haven't been lost on vintners who want to make crowd-pleasing wines, which is why most successful high-volume wines emphasize fruit. Writers, retailers and sommeliers who want to establish themselves as independent seem to have reacted by championing wines that go the other way.
Philosophically, I can enjoy flavors that fall under the heading of savory. I like a little loamy earth aroma in my Pinot Noir. I appreciate those sage and bay leaf notes in Cabernet Sauvignon. And despite my natural antipathy toward excessive gaminess, I can enjoy a hint of leather wafting through my Syrah.
To excel, though, a wine needs more than the savory side of things. Without fruit at the center, it's like a percussion solo. Too many wines favored by those independent souls seem to cover their bass lines and harmonies with the raucous noise, raging acidity, excessive tannins and my personal bête noir, brettanomyces. Many of those wines seem out of balance to me.
I am willing to order something unfamiliar off a "who the heck are those guys?" wine list, but I also make sure the sommelier knows I don't like brett and I do like fruit. I say it with a smile, and as a result I've discovered some wonderful unheralded labels from unexpected places.
I'll never forget my first sip of Mencía from northwestern Spain. It tasted like a Spanish version of Beaujolais, with a little more substance and a hint of loamy earth. The tang of salty, citrusy acidity in Falanghina, from Campania, in Italy, has become a favorite. I also welcome the meaty, spicy overtones of some particular fine Syrahs from Walla Walla in Washington, many of which show a distinctive black olive character that Rhône red lovers think of as "tapenade."
In all these wines, savory nuances go along with, but do not replace, precise fruit flavors.
Blind-tasting Oregon Pinot Noirs for review recently, I found stark differences between late-release 2011s and the much riper 2012 vintage. While light on their feet, 2011s can bury their fruit flavors under biting tannins and leafy, earthy notes, while 2012s wear their berry and currant flavors on their sleeves, clothing them in fine tannins and delicately savory nuances.
They are not, for the most part, heavy-handed wines. Alcohol levels were still mostly in the 13s for these 2012s, but they were sunnier and more welcoming. The savory-first crowd may have different ideas, as evidenced by a recent Twitter exchange: "Going from OR 2011 to 2012 Pinots in the same tasting," I tweeted, "is like clawing through a thorny blackberry thicket ('11) into a verdant glade ('12)." First responses agreed. But one said, "Give me a thorny blackberry thicket any day of the week!"
I'll take the middle door, please.