Cherry cough syrup wine

SyrupThe Wine Curmudgeon has been tasting lots and lots of grocery store red wines lately, almost all of them samples, and he is not happy. Why do so many of these wines taste like cherry cough syrup?

These are not supposed to be sweet wines. They're labeled and sold as dry red wines, with alcohol levels of more than 13 1/2 percent. Nevertheless, they taste sweet and sticky, just like cherry cough syrup. Which, frankly, is kind of gross. More, after the jump:

The Wine Curmudgeon does not have anything against sweet wine, or even sweet red wine. After all, the No. 1 rule here — the only rule here — is drink what you like and try different kinds of wine so you can figure out what you like. And it's possible to make sweet wine that doesn't taste like a soft drink. The Germans have been doing it for centuries, and winemakers elsewhere in the world do it well, too.

The same can't be said for these cough syrup wines, which are, plain and simple, dishonest. Their reason for being is not winemaking, but cynicism. The perception is that U.S. consumers have a sweet palate (which may or may not be true; that's a discussion for another day). So why not make wine that tastes sweet? The catch, of course, is that the wine business can't call it sweet, because it has spent the last 20 years denigrating sweet wine. Don't believe that? Then check white zinfandel sales. So, after a little better winemaking through chemistry, it can sell red wines that seem sweet without the stigma of saying sweet on the label.

You've probably tasted a lot of these wines yourself — they cost $8 to $18 or so, often have a cute label, and promise some pretty amazing flavors on the back label. Nowhere, anywhere, does it say the wine is sweet, but it may tout something like candied strawberry, baked blueberry pie, caramel and even root beer and cola. Missing are many of the descriptors usually used for dry red wine, like mushrooms, cedar and leather. Also, before I get any nasty comments from New World-style enthusiasts, there is a difference between these wines and the fruit-forward New World style. The latter is honest and it's based on terroir; the only terroir the former have seen is the inside of a lab.

Cough syrup wines are usually not made by adding sugar, which is too expensive. Instead, after fermentation is finished and the residual sugar in the grape juice has been converted to alcohol, more grape juice or even unfinished fortified wine is added. This adds sweetness without necessarily diluting the wine (and it can even lower the alcohol, which may be too high after fermentation). No wonder so many wine drinkers are confused about the difference between sweet wine and fruity wine.

I'm not making a value judgment about these wines in term of quality. Again, if this is what you want to drink, drink it. What I think doesn't matter, because the best wine is wine that you like. Rather, I'm questioning their character. They're sweet wines in all but name, because the people making them don't want to be associated with sweet wines — but they do want the cash with comes from selling them. And the recession has only given them more reason to do so.

The federal government has been contemplating ingredient labels for wine for what seems like decades. The industry has not been excited about the proposal, and for some good reasons. The label is already crowded with the alcohol warning and bar code, and a nutrition facts box would be problematic, especially for imported wines. But I also wonder if part of the resistance is because there are so many wines that contain something other than the grape juice they started out with, yeast, and a couple of other basics. And they may not want consumers to know.


2 thoughts on “Cherry cough syrup wine

  • By Michael Kaiser - Reply

    We think the TTB may finally put out the nutritional info ruling for alcohol beverage labels sometime next year.

  • By Boris - Reply

    You bring up the most interesting topics/reactions. Though I’m a big fan of Norton wines, I must admit that for years I’ve described certain Norton wine taste examples as “Robitussin”. This description crosses the economic lines from value Norton wines ($15+/-) to those which have aged a few years and are in the $25 and up range. Hmm, is this why there are those who drink wines only for medicinal purposes?

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