There’s a popular misconception about wine that dry is better than sweet. I’m no specialist in national psychology, but this fear of sweetness might stem from our collective awareness of our American sweet tooth and a quaint notion that wine is European and therefore sophisticated and bitter. We love sugary sodas, sweet tea, sweet and sour chicken, sticky sweet barbecue sauces, cookies and cakes and more. And overtly sweet wines are popular, too, judging from sales figures. Yet there is still a perception that sweet wines are unsophisticated and somehow inferior to dry.
They aren’t. They’re just different.
The key is that the sweetness needs to be balanced by acidity. I’m not going to indulge in a techno-geeky discourse about grams per liter of residual sugar vs. titratable acidity, or precise definitions of dry, semi-dry, medium-dry or sweet. (Note how the nomenclature reinforces the bias by emphasizing degrees of dryness?) Truth is, the wine industry is appealing to our sweet tooth by flooding supermarkets and convenience stores with cheap treacle whose only defining characteristic is sweet. Not fruitiness or acidity, just sweet. And maybe heavy. These clunky wines may sell because they are cheap, but they probably also reinforce the idea that sweet wines are lower quality.
Terry Theise, a wine broker famous for his portfolio of high-quality wines from Germany, Austria and Champagne, chafes at the market prejudice for dry wines. He has chided German producers for insisting that their top-of-the-line wines must be dry.
“Show me someone who truly hates sweetness, and I’ll show you someone to invite on a picnic,” he says, “since you can eat all the delicious strawberries on top of the basket, and he can eat all the runty little green ones that sank to the bottom.”
His point, of course, is that nobody really hates sweetness.
Except when it comes to wine, too many of us think we should. And our fear of sweetness is linked to some degree with Riesling, the quintessential German wine. Riesling can be amazingly delicious when bone dry, or unctuously sweet, or anywhere in between, because it can have the acidity to balance the sugar. Some would argue it needs the sugar to balance its acidity. The problem for consumers is that we don’t always know what we’re buying — is the Riesling dry? Is it sweet? Worst of all, is it neither?
“We can’t get away from the question of sweetness,” says August Deimel, winemaker at Keuka Spring Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes, a region known for Riesling. “We spend a lot of time explaining to consumers and the trade what the sweetness level is. Unfortunately, one person’s off-dry is another person’s bone dry, and another person’s uber-sweet.”
Deimel sees a generational factor in this anti-sweet bias. “There are definitely people out there who still say the only good wine is a dry wine,” he told me. “I don’t see that so much with my peers as with baby boomers or Gen Xers.” (He’s 35.) “You don’t see that bias so much with millennials.”
We’ve seen this before, in their willingness to try wines from unfamiliar countries, states or regions, “natural” wines fermented in amphorae without sulfur, or trendy petillant-naturel sparklers, bottled before the fermentation is complete to produce bubbles, and topped with unpretentious crown cap closures. Younger drinkers are eager to experiment, unencumbered by the preconceptions and prejudices that shape their parents’ perspectives.
Many wineries in the Finger Lakes and other regions that specialize in Riesling, such as Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula, produce Rieslings they label “dry” and “semi-dry.” Some indicate sweetness levels using a scale on the back label. I’ll admit an instinctive bias toward drier wines, but I often find myself reacting more enthusiastically to semi-dry versions. They tend to be more harmonious, more complete and more compatible with food.
So let’s reassess our fear of sweetness in wine. Don’t just say “yuck.” Ask yourself: Is it just sugary, or is it showing ripe fruit flavors of peaches, apricots and berries? Does the acidity balance the sweetness and leave your palate refreshed, ready for another sip or bite of food? Fruity wines, with or without some degree of residual sugar left after fermentation, are often great partners to the spicier cuisines we favor today.
Come on, America. Embrace your sweet tooth.