Just a spoonful of sugar helps the chardonnay go down
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
"Can you recommend a good dry wine?" It's a question wine retailers hear every
day. Yet the very same people asking this question usually walk out of the
store with a sweet or semisweet wine. Puzzling, isn't it?
Sweet wine has a serious image problem in this country. After Prohibition,
some struggling American liquor companies started producing low-quality,
sticky-sweet beverages with names borrowed from famous European wines, like
"sauterne" and "port"
-- a dubious tradition that continues to this day. Eager to
separate themselves from the proletariat, wine snobs denounced these sugary
concoctions and declared that only the great dry wines of Europe were worthy of
Americans bought into the snob appeal of dry wines, but sweet wines remain
very popular. The reason is obvious: people like the taste.
and the great majority of box, jug, and under-$10 wines are still decidedly
sweet. But so are some of the better-known quality brands. As the winemakers at
Kendall-Jackson discovered some years ago, leaving a little unfermented sugar
in a bottle of ostensibly dry
chardonnay, merlot, or
increases sales; it's now a fairly widespread practice. In the rest of the
world, off-dry (semisweet) wines and decadently sweet dessert wines are
some of the most prized wines made -- and occasionally the most expensive,
since the techniques required to make a high-quality sweet wine can reduce a
producer's total output to less than 100 bottles of deliciously honeyed nectar
per year (see "The Sweet Truth," below right).
Though we all claim we can identify the taste of sugar, it can be pretty easy
to misidentify sweetness in wine. Some particularly rich and flavorful
varieties, like Alsatian
gewurztraminer, Condrieu (a white wine from France's
Rhône Valley), and chardonnay,
are often mistakenly believed to be sweet
when they are, in fact, simply powerfully flavored wines. The term I like to
use for this character is oily, because of the way the richness
coats the palate like honey or a very milky chocolate.
The sweet truth
To get technical for a moment, sweetness is a measure of the
residual sugar in a wine. (That's sugar that was not converted to
alcohol during the fermentation process.) Residual sugar can be produced in
many ways, including harvesting the grapes late (which concentrates the sugar),
drying or freezing the grapes (which achieves similar results), deliberately
stopping the fermentation process (occasionally by adding a sweet alcohol like
brandy to the fermenting juice), or even allowing a special mold called
botrytis (also called noble rot) to shrivel and dehydrate the
grapes on the vine.
The key to a good sweet wine is
acidity keeps wine from
tasting flat and sugary,
provide a bitter counterpoint, and a reasonably high alcohol level coupled with good
acidity prevents a hedonistic
dessert wine from becoming wine-flavored syrup.
Imbalances can also make dry
wines taste sweeter than they should. Unsurprisingly, proper
balance plays a
large role in determining whether sweet wines will go with food.
Extremely sweet wines should usually be consumed with or as dessert. Among the
few exceptions are port
with Stilton, and Sauternes with genuine French
Roquefort or foie gras (either way, an expensive proposition). Off-dry wines
are a different story. They're a perfect match with ham or any sweet-glazed
meat or vegetable, they stand up to reasonably spicy food, and they go
particularly well with the spicy-sweet mixture of flavors in Chinese and Thai
The following recommendations explore different kinds of sweetness and, where
appropriate, the foods they complement.
1993 Vinicola Navarra Las Campanas ($6.99). A bone-dry and
Spanish rosé. (Though it will probably come as a shock to many
lovers of pink "blush" wines, most of the world's rosés are dry.) This
one tastes of cherries, strawberries, and red apple. Serve chilled with pizza
or any kind of tomato dish.
1993 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Léognan) ($33.95). A
dry white Bordeaux, but its nearly overwhelming waves of dusty orange peel,
green apple, grapefruit, pear, lemon, and lime with an oily finish give the
impression of a slight sweetness. It will evolve and change over the course of
an evening, and would be perfect with a flavorful white fish (like red snapper)
in a salty sauce.
1996 Kurt Darting Riesling Spätlese Pfalz Durkheimer
Spielberg ($11.99). This off-dry white from Germany is a good value, with
aromas of apple and peach, and a buttery, honeyed character supported by strong
It will go equally well with honey-glazed ham, Chinese orange chicken,
and pork chops with applesauce.
1996 Coppo Moscato d'Asti Moncalvina ($17.99). Slightly
with a nose of honeydew, celery, sweet onion, lemon, and green apple. Tastes
like a funky fruit salad (banana, mango, kiwi, sweet tangerine), with a light
sweetness underlying everything. Serve this low-alcohol wine with fruit
desserts or spicy fish soup.
1994 Domaine de Coyeaux Muscat de Beaumes de Venise ($18.95). A
dessert wine from France's Rhône Valley, this is a fruit festival of
oranges, nectarines, pears, and grapefruit, with a honeyed apple finish.
Perfect with crème brûlée.
N.V. Chateau Reynella Fine Old Tawny Port Old Cave (McLaren Vale)
($13.99). One of the better ports
from Australia, with delicious flavors of
roasted pecans, cashews, and almonds; candied orange and wild berry syrup; and
buttered and maple-coated waffles. To be enjoyed by itself in front of the fire
after a long day of skiing (or shoveling).
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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