My wine-snobbier friends and other industry members might heap demerits for dedicating this first column to fairer sorts of wine but, inasmuch as it’s my pen, let’s christen this ship with an observation of The Sweeties: Riesling, Muscat, Moscato, Muscadelle, Late Harvest, Fortified; even concord grape wine with Bosco.
Few can suggest that sugar is unpleasant. To go a step further, few can argue that the flavor of alcohol is enjoyable (for the record, I’ve rejected the notion that alcohol is ‘flavorless’ since attempting to pull a long, straight draw of Everclear a few decades back). In wine we find sugars and alcohol, various enzymes, acids, proteins, resins, microbes, esters, along with other things I didn’t learn about in school, integrated in a relatively narrow range of composition that, together, strike a chord very appealing to many folks’ taste buds. Like coffee, beverage alcohol is an acquired taste and not one that will necessarily be acquired at all. Our taste for sugar, on the other hand, is primordial. It precedes conception. It’s easy and remains enjoyable throughout most lives. As we become adults, the enjoyment of sweets remains a basically juvenile indulgence. Concurrently the enjoyment of wine becomes an adult pursuit. It’s at this point where the wine class-wars begin.
As McKinney’s Wine Merchant www.mckinneywine.com I don’t take sides. My interest is that McKinney wine drinkers drink better wine and that they know where better wine is sold. As recently as ten years ago sweet wine drinkers were rolling in one of three circles: White Zinfandel, Lousy Sweet Wine, and Bum Wine. None of these afforded such consumers much in the way of social status and closeted erstwhile good and fun folks as they ordered a beer or margarita when the rest of the gang was into a bottle of merlot. At best white zin was featured at restaurants with paper napkins and tables. Worse, Bum Wine was the dubious subject of a morbid, groundbreaking study that can be found here: www.bumwine.com.
Finally about 2002, all that began to change. I don’t know if it was fed-up consumers standing and demanding action or an astute marketing team taking notice (I lied. Actually, I do know. I was in the room. It was both events in sequence) but Rieslings suddenly became prominent. Suddenly an affordable wine of refinement and panache was recognized and, in a day, reconstituted the dignity of a class of drinker. The rest is a history still being written. Rieslings have exploded with some even declaring themselves “sweet”. American Muscat producers sexed up the name to ‘Moscato’ on a wine generally sweeter and more fragrant than Riesling. Muscadelle, similar but not genetically related, sounds too much like an old after shave brand to break out as named but makes some great dessert wines. Some have bubbles, frizz, or frizzante. Most are still – no bubbles. Some are barely sweet. Some practically ooze out of the bottle so sugary as to complement a short stack of flapjacks. Greatest of all – some are red! There’s a darned fine bottle of Sweet Shiraz from South Africa called “Jam Jar” ($9.99) and its one of my top sellers – The Wine Spectator even gave it an 84 point rating!
All of this has given sweet wine drinkers cause to hold their heads up. Sure, power-cab drinkers may not take you up on a glass of Brachetto d’Acqui but now you can stand in the room, raise your glass high and exclaim “I love good wine too”.
A few additional points:
- Dessert wines excluded, everyday sweeties tend to have lower alcohol with levels rarely exceeding 12% and occasionally less than a lot of beers at 5.5%. This may be good or bad news depending on your attitude.
- Not all Rieslings are sweet. Some are very dry, age-worthy and expensive. McKinney Wine Merchant, for instance, sells Pewsey Vale from Australia’s Eden Valley (dry but not expensive: $15) – it’s near-perfect with oysters.
- A group of sparkling wines made from the red Brachetto grape of Northern Italy are gaining favor rapidly. Among these McKinney Wine Merchant carries ‘Stella Rosa’ by Il Conte d’Alba ($14.99) and ‘Rosa Regale’ by Banfi ($19.99).
- Whereas true sweetness is attributable only to sugar content, there are characteristics which can make a wine come across as sweet. Low alcohol and floral or perfume essences are often misidentified in descriptions.
- Other grapes that are often used as base or blend for sweeter or aromatic wines include Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer (come to store for pronunciation) and Symphony.
- A ‘Late Harvest’ designation on a label indicates a practice or technique where the grapes are harvested..er…later than the regular ones, usually 2-4 weeks. The grapes dry, shrivel and occasionally take on tasty molds. Less water in the berry means more sugar in the berry.
- There are flavored wines on the market, often made from Concord grapes, where berry, chocolate or other flavor additives take things to another, often frightening, level.
- Moscato d’Asti is made in a traditional method from grapes sourced from around the town of Asti in Northwestern Italy. It is considered among the best expressions of the grape, attains a light and pleasant effervescence and rarely costs more than $18 per bottle at retail.