Sweet Wine

Tim Hanni has decided that the wine industry owes sweet wine drinkers an apology.

He’s only half serious, of course, but his point is well taken. Hanni is an American Master of Wine who originated a recent study on the scientific reasons behind personal wine preferences. Among other things, the study found a huge gap between the opinions that wine industry insiders had about sweet wine, and the message that the industry consistently conveyed to consumers.

Ask any wine geek about sweet wine, and they’ll go on and on about the glories of Sauternes, German TBA and Eiswein, late-harvest Alsace Riesling, etc. At the same time, consumers who like sweet wine are frequently told (either directly or by implication) that they need to refine their palates and “graduate” to a stage where they can appreciate drier wine.

Of course, this message tends to be aimed at consumers who habitually consume White Zinfandel. Industry research suggests that these folks rarely “graduate” to anything drier. Prior to the White Zinfandel epidemic, most wine drinkers started with German Riesling and eventually made the leap to Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The reason? German Riesling, like most of the world’s great sweet wines, displays a balance between sweetness and acidity that makes it both fresh and elegant. With White Zin, sweetness is all you’ve got. People are drinking it precisely because it doesn’t taste much like wine.

From many different perspectives, this is a shame. The White Zinfandel craze almost killed the U.S. market for dry rosé, which has only recently begun to recover. For several decades, lovers of dry rosé were literally afraid to be seen drinking in public, for fear they would be taken for fans of White Zin.

Historically, the craze for dry wine is very recent. During most of human history, sugar was a status symbol, and the amount of sugar someone was able to consume was an indicator of their place on the social ladder. Sweet wines were reserved for connoisseurs and the tables of the rich. This is still partly true, but the main factor today is time. Sweet wines are likely to appear at the end of a multi-course meal, and few of us have the luxury of spending two or three hours at the dinner table.

If you want to get started, pick up a bottle of inexpensive Sauternes such as Chateau Haut Charmes or La Fleur D’Or (see last week’s post on 2009 Bordeaux). If you’re a lover of red wine, chocolate, or any combination thereof, spring for a bottle of vintage character port such as Fonseca Bin 27 or Warre’s Warrior, and you can begin to experience the glories of sweet wine.

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