This is the second of two parts looking at sweet red wine, which could become as important to the wine business as white zinfandel once was. Today, a look at sweet reds and what they taste like. Part I on Feb. 17 explored the whys and wherefores of sweet red’s growth.
Talk to any wine drinker — even experienced ones — and one of the adjectives they always use is smooth. “That’s a smooth wine.” “I want to buy a smooth red wine.” And that, in one word, is what sweet red wine delivers — and what the seemingly infinite number of new sweet reds is trying to capitalize on.
Because the red wine that most of us drink isn’t smooth. It’s tannic, sometimes bitterly so. It can be harshly acidic. And some of it, despite the advances in wine technology, can be unpleasantly green — tasting of unripe fruit or smelling of bell pepper. We can argue whether smooth is a legitimate quality for a wine (I think balance is a better term), but that’s what consumers are looking for.
And what happens when sugar is added to red wine? The bitter tannins get covered up. The harsh acidity is blended away. And that unpleasant green disappears. It becomes, as one blurb for Apothic Red calls the wine, “smooth.”
After the jump, tasting notes for six sweet reds and a few thoughts about how these wines are made and how to tell how sweet they are.
The irony about sweet red is that the industry has been making dry red wines that taste sweet for years — the so-called fruit bombs, red wines that are fermented dry but have grape juice blended in to boost fruit flavor and impression of sweetness. When I asked Christian Miller of California’s Full Glass Research about the sweet wine trend earlier this year, he laughed and told me that if you tasted the new sweet reds next to the dry red fruit bombs, there wouldn’t be much difference.
There is some truth to that, though many of the new sweet reds take sweetness to places modern red wine has never gone before. In this, they make it increasingly difficult to tell how sweet the wine is. Traditionally, the lower a wine’s alcohol content, the sweeter it is. That’s because sweet wines have usually been made by stopping fermentation while there is still sugar in the grape juice. In winemaking, the sugar is converted into alcohol, so that a 14 percent wine has less residual sugar than a 6 percent wine and should taste much drier.
But many of the new sweet reds are made differently. Sugar is added to the finished product, so a wine with 14 percent alcohol can be as sweet as a semi-dry riesling, which would be only 11 or 12 percent alcohol. Something else to keep in mind: Adding sugar is done in a variety of ways — with high fructose corn syrup, with grape juice concentrate, or with cane sugar. My experience has been that the best-tasting wines use cane sugar; the other two don’t offer as much of a mouth feel. In addition, wines that add corn syrup sometimes leave a sticky, weird aftertaste, while wines sweetened with concentrate have an almost grapey aroma. The catch? Until the federal government announces new labeling laws, which is expected later this year, there is no way to tell from the label how a wine is sweetened — either through fermentation or by adding sugar.
One other note: I’ve found that the best-made sweet reds use the concord grape, which seems to handle the additional sugar better than wines made with European-style varieties. There is better balance between the fruit, the sugar, and the grape’s natural acidity. Of course, the wine isn’t necessarily smooth, but it is well made — witness the sweet red from South Dakota’s Prairie Berry winery.
This is ironic, too, since the concord is the province of regional wine, and what has been the biggest criticism of regional wine? That all the wines are sweet. A tip o’ the Wine Curmudgeon’s fedora to Jeff Lefevere at the Good Grape wine blog, who wrote about this more than a year ago — and noted that California could well be following the regional business’ lead. We’re going to have to get him to a DrinkLocalWine conference one of these days.
The following is far from a complete list of sweet reds that are widely available. I didn’t taste the Barefoot, Sutter Home and Smoking Loon (just not enough time in the day for my overworked palate). But this will get you started:
? Apothic Red ($12, sample): There are two styles of sweet red — red wine blends that are made like red wine and don’t say they’re sweet on the label, and wines that are unashamedly sweet, both in taste and on the label. The Apothic is an example of the first — moderately sweet, but with red wine characteristics like tannins. Not especially fruity (red cherry, maybe?), with a nice dollop of sweetness in the middle.
? Jam Jar ($10, purchased): This is probably the first of the modern sweet reds, and it proudly calls itself a sweet wine. The 20-something clerk at World Market, where I bought it, told me she loved the wine — “very smooth.” My pal John Bratcher, who tasted some of these wines with me, had a great descriptor: “cherry cider.” In this, it’s a sweet red wine, and not a red wine that is sweet, like the Apothic. Serve this well chilled.
? Brix Sweet Shiraz ($9, purchased): Some regional wineries throughout the U.S. are buying bulk grapes from California and adding sugar to make sweet wines in a more commercial style than typical regional sweet wine. We’ve got a couple in Texas, including Brix, and it seems to be representative of that style. It had a grape juicy aroma and sticky mouth feel, and was in between the Jam Jar and Apothic in sweetness. Probably the least impressive of the group I tasted.
? Beringer Red Moscato ($5, purchased): The final frontier for sweetness — twice as much sugary-ness as a Beringer white zinfandel, with a very distinctive cherry Kool-Aid flavor. Having said that, it’s extremely well made if that’s what you’re looking for. Serve ice cold.
? St. James Velvet Red ($7, purchased): This Missouri wine is a traditional regional sweet red, made with concord. That means acid to balance the sweetness, as well as concord’s Welch’s grape juice aroma. Not as sweet as the red moscato, but sweet enough. Serve chilled.
? Quady Red Electra ($14, purchased): Technically, this is a dessert wine, but Quady winemaker Mike Blaylock told me the sweet red wine trend has given the wine a boost with people who wouldn’t normally buy dessert wine. As such, it’s sweeter than the Jam Jar or Apothic, and even sweeter than the Red Moscato (though, because it has so much acid, it doesn’t taste as sweet). Serve chilled.