By now we’re used to pretty much anything when it comes to wine descriptions. Velvety, sexy, and supple are about as commonplace as red, white and sparkling on menus that read more like literotica than a wine list.
There’s one word, however, that invariably solicits a chuckle from the most serious sommeliers. Foxy.
One way to explain foxy is an earthy muskiness. “Earthy” is exactly what it sounds like. Dirt. Nature. Even a damp muddy quality or the scent of being deep in the woods. Muskiness is an animalic quality. Something wild, a little dirty, but most of all it is palpable, like a shape as opposed to a scent. Imagine the appeal of perfume on skin when it smells like it belongs to the person who is wearing it. When we think about pheromones, a fine sheen of perspiration that is attractive in a primal way. Then add layers of purple cola or overripe strawberries. Now, dial back all of that, filter it, add a chill, the clean sting of citric acid or alcoholic fermentation and these are the elements make up the savage accord that is foxy.
The balance of aroma, flavor, and texture is a key factor in determining fine wine, so while foxiness does show up in complex beautiful wines, it’s rarely the predominant note. The best way to get a blast of foxy is to drink wines or juices made from the vitis labrusca species of grapes, for example, Concord, Isabella, Catawba, and Niagara.
The Europeans, who set today’s standards for wine production and quality, were so horrified by the untamed flavor profile of some particular varieties of grapes (mostly imported from North America), that they designated them apart from traditional wine-making grapes vitis vinifera.
Today they show up mainly in table wines. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle of Fragolino, a deep magenta-colored wine, usually sparkling and screaming with strawberry notes, is a beloved dessert wine in the Veneto region.
Here at home you’ll find a full spectrum of wines and juices made from vitis labrusca grapes, most notably Concord, Welch’s signature purple grape juice, which most recently makes an appearance in a sparkling rosé variation with a bright snappy finish.
Manischewitz and Kedem still dominate Passover tables this time of year. Nostalgia is sweet.
The Niagara, a white grape is most commonly found in white grape juice and lower alcohol, highly aromatic wines in the northeast. Catawba can be found most often in sweet rosé wines, but was one produced in a Champenoise style by Nicholas Longworth, a banker and America’s first commercially successful winemaker. He sent a bottle of his sparkling Catawba to the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote an ode to it along with several American grape varieties. Johnson Estate makes lovely exemplars of both Catawba and Niagara.
Whether you find the find the bombastic bouquet of these wines and juices fascinating or frightening, they represent that powerful foxy note that shows up, albeit more subtly, in wines from all over the world.