The term “flabby” doesn’t typically stir positive associations. While the primary dictionary definition is “lacking resilience or firmness,” Merriam-Webster also describes it as “weak and ineffective.”
In wine, the term is nuanced.
“Flabby simply means lacking structure,” says Etinosa Empokae, a Philadelphia-based sommelier. “There’s no spine or backbone bringing it together.”
Empokae finds flabby wines typically lack acid. “I compare it to cooking, when you are missing that one ingredient, like citrus, that brings the dish together.”
The acidity of wine grapes depends on when they’re picked off the vine. Because sugar and acid have an inverse relationship, the longer a grape is on the vine, the less acid it has and the more sugars it develops. Sugar is crucial for the fermentation process, however, and it is skilled work to determine when a grape has reached that perfect balance of sugar and acid before being harvested.
Jirka Jireh traces flabbiness back to the vineyard. “When I think of the term ‘flabby’ I think of wines that are over-farmed,” says the Oakland-based educator and advocate, and cofounder of Industry Sessions, a natural wine study organization for BIPOC hospitality professionals.
“These wines tend to be stripped of personality or depth and are sold at a lower price point,” she says. “Are they awful? No. There is a time and a place for a simple wine… not all fruit will come from beautiful slopes and revered old vines, and that’s ok.”
The fruit that produces “flabby” wines can also be grown in a destination associated with quality. But, due to challenging climatic conditions, overfarming or other factors, the resulting wine is less structured and priced accordingly.
“When someone describes a wine as ‘flabby,’ I literally get a visual cue, like someone picked up a piece of rubber and started jiggling it,” says Bianca Sanon, co-owner of Paradis Books and Bread in Miami, Florida. “That’s not to say that there isn’t a place in the world for flabby wine. Unstructured, albeit creamy wines are typically just missing a complementary food component that takes care of that pick-me-up.”
When pairing, the default is to match foods that are rich in texture with high-acid wines. But when a dish has intense spice, acidic wines can strip away the flavors.
“Flabby wines can soothe the palate when you’re enjoying foods that are intense and sharp or particularly spicy,” Sanon says.
So, the next time you’re enjoying piquant South Asian, Caribbean or West African cuisines, you might want to check in with a less tannic, so-called flabby wine.