Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An Admission Most Egregious

I like sweet wine.

This may quickest way I have found to make a surprising number of wine shoppers run for the hills. Allow the word ‘sweet’ to enter the description of a wine (obviously excluding of course those who come in search of sweet wine) and before even being allowed to qualify such a statement, “I only like dry wine, ick, nothing sweet.” When conversations outside of work turn to wine, often casual drinkers will tell me they only like chardonnay, nothing sweet or perhaps a good dry red.

Just once I want someone to tell me they like bad dry reds.

I find this curious. In a land of disgusting soda container sizes, caramel macchiatos, and restaurants that have ‘Cheesecake’ in the title, why are so many people so averse to sweetness in wine? I think there are a few issues going on here. One would be the preconceived notions of a grape or wine making region, the second problem is the conflation of fruit flavors and sweetness, and finally the memory of the first sweet wine a drinker may have had (Boone’s Farm or Lancer’s any one?) and the ensuing hangover because it was probably an exceedingly cheap wine.

The third issue is easy enough to tackle. Many cheap sweet wines made to appeal to, not to be pejorative, non-serious wine drinkers are frequently lacking any notion of balance. If it is a 1.5L bottle of moscato for $7.99, it’s not going to be balanced or a fair example to, say, good riesling from the Mosel. Probably won’t taste very good either. But just like letting curious imbibers taste dry rose when they are under the perception that all rose is sweet, letting someone taste a balanced sweet wine can change a few minds. Side note for another time, not all rose is sweet.

The issues of confusing fruit flavors in wine and sweetness are intertwined with wine prejudice. Some drinkers will swear up and down that all German wines are sweet and all wines from Alsace are sweet. I could pour a completely dry German riesling and receive the response of, “That wine’s too sweet.” While people I often find looking for “dry” wines are seeking out, for example, Kendall-Jackson chardonnay. Prime example of a wine which is reputed to leave an unknown amount of residual sugar to make it more appealing to a wider range of consumers. I’m also casting a sideways glance at cheap high alcohol zinfandel. The perception is that chardonnay is dry, so that’s often how it will be perceived, no matter how it actually tastes.

The wine that appears above is Max Ferdinand Richter’s 2011 Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese. To break all that business down, the wine is made from riesling grown in the town of Brauneberg along the middle Mosel in the reputedly superior Juffer-Sonnenuhr vineyard. Spatlese refers to a later harvest of riesling (later than kabinett, earlier than auslese) which has a high sugar content, but is balanced with higher acidity as well. Sometimes the acidity can grow to “bone-crunching” levels to quote Paul Grieco.

Riesling from good Mosel producers like Richter are perfect examples of how sweetness and acid can balance each other to create harmonious age worthy wines of exceptional beauty. The above wine was enjoyed with a salty ham, and it was fantastic. The wine itself was all flowers and peaches with an underlying minerality caused by perilously steep vineyards riddled with slate. Off-dry riesling and salty ham may be one of my favorite food pairings and should not be passed up just because one is afraid of looking like an amateur for liking wines with sweetness. The other useful quality to good riesling is that because the natural acidity and sugar is higher than your average white wine, they are some of the best aging wines in the world. Something to keep in mind if you’re considering any long term wine aging.

So next time someone proposes a wine that may perhaps be a little sweet, keep an open mind.


  1. Thanks for this post, Joe. I've been thinking about trying some sweet wines myself lately, so this is wonderful info.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Derek. You'll have to let me know what you end up trying, or if you would like a direction.

  3. Great Post Joe, I to like a nice Riesling, when I can slip it into the cart past Rachel. Next time I am in I will have to pick up something by Richter, you won me over with the underlying minerality.

  4. I imagine we could find something she would be into.