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It’s red wine, isn’t it? So enough with the sugar already

sweet red wineSweet red wine: It’s time for the wine business to admit it’s sugaring up our red wine and passing it off as dry.

The Wine Curmudgeon has been writing a wine of the week on Wednesday, alternating red and white, for as long as I have been doing the blog. But we almost didn’t have a wine of the week two days ago. Call it my aversion to phony sweet red wine.

I tasted almost a dozen reds from California, Oregon, Washington, Spain, and France to find something to write about. No luck: Most of them weren’t very good and some of them were hideous, a recent trend. What was worse is that more than half of them were sweet. Yes, sweet red wine – as in enough residual sugar so that my mouth had that cotton candy feeling after I finished tasting.

It’s one thing to taste so much bad wine; that’s the burden I accepted when I took on cheap wine. But that the wines are sweet, in addition to poorly made, is a new horror, and one that I refuse to accept.

Red wine, unless it’s labeled as such, is not supposed to be sweet. If it is, it’s Kosher. Or Lambrusco. And that’s fine. I have nothing against sweet red wine, and have enjoyed all sorts over my wine drinking career. But that the wine business – and Big Wine is not the only culprit here – has decided to “smooth” dry red wine by extreme winemaking or sweetening (sugar or white grape juice or whatever, depending on the law in the country where the wine is made) is a travesty. And I refuse to accept it.

Why is this happening? It’s a combination of things, based on the idea that labeling red wine as sweet is death in the marketplace. Didn’t the wine business spend 30 years telling us that the only people who drank sweet wine were crazy old ladies with cats? So we get “red blends” that are hugely sweet but are sold as dry to appeal to the rest of us. And that are flooding store shelves.

Consider:

• The idea that there is an “American palate,” in which we won’t drink something unless it has enough sugar to make us cry rock candy tears. This makes me crazy, since most wine in the U.S. is dry and has been for decades. And everyone made a lot of money over the past 30 years selling dry wine.

• Copy cat marketing. E&J Gallo’s Apothic, the first legitimate sweet red blend, is a huge seller. So everyone else has to have their version of Apothic.

• The cynicism that has become part of doing business in the 21st century. We’re not wine drinkers to them; we’re vast hordes of focus groups to be manipulated in search of profit. This story bears repeating: A former Proctor & Gamble executive once told me he could get a focus group to do anything he wanted – which, he said, was the point of focus groups.

So be warned, wine business. I won’t mention any names now. I’ll give you one more chance. But know that from now on: If the wine is sweet, and you don’t label it sweet, I’m calling you out. I’ll have a permanent post here, listing the wines. And yes, I’m just one cranky wine writer. But we have to start somewhere.

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7 thoughts on “It’s red wine, isn’t it? So enough with the sugar already

  • By Diane - Reply

    Thank you for doing this work.

  • By Rich Liebman - Reply

    Hear, hear!

    Power to the Curmudgeon!

  • By Tim Hanni - Reply

    • The idea that there is an “American palate,” in which we won’t drink something unless it has enough sugar to make us cry rock candy tears. This makes me crazy, since most wine in the U.S. is dry and has been for decades. And everyone made a lot of money over the past 30 years selling dry wine.

    Consider that this is a myth and that the French, German, Italians and Spanish USED to love sweet wines. Great sweet wines were prized and served throughout the meal, and simple table wine were often served with a cube of sugar plopped into them to make them more palatable. Champagne in France was often 140 g/L (14%) RS, coke is 108 g/L! the Kir, Sangria, spritzers, vermouth, Kalimoxo (red wine and cola) ALL consumed in massive quantities. Montrachet in great vintages was VERY sweet – but nobody seems to know that any more. 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc had 30 g/L (3%!) and is considered one of the greatest red wines ever made – 3 times sweeter than Meiomi Pinot Noir. Stop forwarding the notion that this is an American phenomenon and consider consumption in France and Italy has plummeted in the area of 85% – is that what we want??

  • By Roy Zimmermann - Reply

    Amen, brother! When good dry, reasonably priced red blends are available, why subject us to so much swill? One I’m enjoying now, Odoardi Savuto, is a first rate Italian red blend, featuring 5 all Italian grapes, with gaglioppo as the predominant. $12.99 at Weimax in Burlingame. Not widely available, but worth the hunt.

  • By BF - Reply

    And have you tasted Rombauer Chardonnay or Caymus Special Select? THis list is far longer than that. Even the $300 Napa Cabernets have 4 grams of RS (perhaps to balance the legal limit of VA). I won’t drink the stuff, but clearly the consumer loves it and the wine reviewers are inured to it.

  • By Tim Hanni - Reply

    BF – 4 g/L rs is usually unfermentable pentose and the like, so virtually all wines have 3-4 g/l RS. French, US, you name it. Detection threshold for sweetness varies for different people and according to other aspects of wine but is usually in the 6-8 g/L range. Rombauer Chardonnay is typically over 10 g/L. Plus glycine and other amino acids have a very sweet taste, umami (increases nucleotides that synergise natural glutamate taste – by lees stirring and other factors) also increases perception of sweetness while not sweet as a primary taste.

  • By Jim Ruxin - Reply

    I completely agree about the disservice of the “American palate” myth. But to be fair, there are many sweet wines that are red that deserve not just respect but admiration, if of those who do not like sweet wine:

    The best Reccioto de Amarone and the best late harvest grenache from the Rhone or the Languedoc are wonderful, nuanced traditions that are wonderful with cheese as dessert. That is just two renditions of sweet red. They’ll take the scowl off the Wine Curmudgeon’s skepticism.

    Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “No generalization is worth a damn.
    Including this one!” We used to elect only moderately rational presidents too.

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