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Memo to winemakers: Cut the sugar toot sweet!


Yesterday I tasted my way through a bunch of California wines, red and white, that were too sweet. One after the other, they left behind the impression that their particular flavor — whatever it was — had been compounded with a spoonful or two of granulated sugar. “Chocolatey-sweet,” I called a Sonoma Valley Cabernet. “Sweet and candied” is how I described a Yountville Cab. A Carneros Chard had “sweet vanilla flavors,” a Paso Robles Sangiovese was “sugary sweet,” and don’t even get me started on the Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Gris that tasted like some kind of Big Gulp from 7-Eleven.

Well, I thought, nothing new there; I, and many critics, have been complaining about excessive sweetness in California wines for years. I used to think (and occasionally wrote) that the problem was due to high residual sugar levels, but then a winemaker I won’t identify — oh, okay, twist my arm, it was Jed Steele — sent me lab printouts on his wines wherein the official sugar levels were all dry. So I stopped stating, in print, that a wine had residual sugar (because I can’t send everything to a lab to measure it) and instead started writing that a wine tastes like it has residual sugar. Can’t sue me for that!

Whenever I get the California Sugar Blues I wish that the Golden State could make nice, dry wines, especially whites, like they do in one of my favorite wine regions in the world, Alsace. I don’t get to drink a lot of Alsatian wines these days (buried in California) but I drank a lot in the 1980s and fell in love. So rich yet dry, so minerally and pure and tangy. Right?

Not! This morning I open my New York Times (well, since it’s on the computer, I guess “open” isn’t the right verb) and turn to The Pour, looking for Asimov’s latest. Sure enough, there it was, headlined How Sweet.

It’s on Alsatian wines. I’m reading along, waiting for Eric to make his point, and then it comes, right in that short, third paragraph, where he identifies “the issue that currently bedevils Alsace wines: excess sugar.” You can read his entire post yourself, but apparently, Alsatian wines, even the most respected of them, are getting sweeter. Eric says: “Winemakers will argue that the issue is not whether the wines have residual sugar, but whether the sugar is balanced by a proper amount of acidity. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.”

He took those words right out of my mouth. You, too, Alsace? Say it isn’t so! I’ve heard California winemakers make exactly that same argument, that as long as the sweetness is balanced with acidity, everything’s cool. But you know what? It’s not. A table wine that’s too sweet with high acidity is simply that: a table wine that’s too sweet with high acidity. And sometimes, the acidity tastes, or feels, like it came, not from out of the grape, but from out of a bag. Acidulation of a wine with residual sugar can make it taste weird and unpleasant, like a Chinese sweet and sour sauce.

Asimov says the Alsatians are tinkering with some kind of labeling requirement to alert consumers about sweetness levels, but he doubts they’ll come up with anything useful. Ditto here in California. It would be helpful, but winemakers would never agree to it.


This just in from BBC News:

Italians get wine instead of water from faucets

Click here for the full story.

  1. Remember the Iraqi minister of propaganda telling CNN that Iraq was defeating American troops during the initial invasion?

    A little Lugol’s iodine might just validate your suspicions. Dry? My left foot!

  2. An important question is left unanswered in this post… if these white and red wines have little or no residual sugar (as proven by Steele), then… WHY DO THEY TASTE SWEET?

    I sure would love to understand why this is.

  3. Paul, I have asked that question of winemakers for many years. I completely understand why you put that in CAPS. Their answers have ranged from the brain being “fooled” by fruity extract (which sounds absurd to me) to the presence of glycerine (which I guess doesn’t classify technically as a sugar) to high alcohol (which can taste sweet but again is not technically a sugar, as is fructose, glucose, etc.). So that’s as close to an answer as I can give you.

  4. I think that it’s important to point out that glycerol is a very minor component in wines – even BIG wines. Alcohol is not an excuse either: Take Amarone or Jumilla wines – how many of them taste sweet (while coming in at pretty damn high alcohol levels.

    I say we call B.S.

    I stopped counting all the CA winemakers who told me that European wine producers lie on the label about the ABV.

    Let’s turn it around and ask: how many CA producers are lying about RS?

  5. Thanks Arthur. I fully agree with your frustration about the B.S. factor. As I implied in my post, I can’t send everything to a wine lab to rip it apart to determine actual RS, so I can’t go around hurling charges of RS if someone can then turn around and sue me/Wine Enthusiast for libel or false claims or whatever the legal thing would be. I routinely taste California wines I would swear have enough RS to qualify them as off-dry, but all I can do is say it tastes as sweet as a dessert wine and let consumers decide for themselves. I WISH that TTB would mandate ABSOLUTE RS figures on the label but that will never happen.

  6. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your follow-up. Indeed, I agree with Arthur here… I smell B.S. My feeling is that people in general like sweetness in almost everything they put into their mouth. Personally, the more I taste and more I learn about wine, the less I appreciate sweet wines, but I have no doubt that a little residual sugar (or added post fermentation…) makes many supposedly dry wines much “easier” to drink to the occasional wine drinker. A few weeks ago I had a Napa wine, mostly Zin/Cab based. I had absolutely loved the 2005 vintage. The 2006… I could swear there was a fair amount of sugar in it… it broke my heart. Hey… it was only $36 at retail 😉

  7. Paul, I’ve had that experience dozens, maybe hundreds of times, where a wine you previously liked tastes overly sweet in a new vintage. I think the reason is because the winemaker (or whoever’s making the decision, which isn’t always the winemaker) thinks, hey, if I boosted my ’04 to 91 points over the ’03 by having a tenth of a percent more RS, then maybe if I boost the RS another 2/10 of a percent, I can get a 93! It’s stupid, short-term thinking, but then, there are as many silly people among winery owners as there are among the general population.

  8. Just to stir the lees a bit here:

    How would you account for higher perceived sweetness in the wine (’05 vs ’06) if you looked at it from the perspective of vintage variation and not so much of score-chasing (that I am a score-chasing denier)….

  9. Arthur, I guess there’s a certain amount of vintage variation but I just blogged on how California vintages are more alike than not, so I can’t ascribe a great deal of difference to vintage. No, I have to conclude that winemakers, or owners, or marketing and sales people, or whoever’s calling the shots (and you never know) are mandating sweeter, softer, oakier wines in order to appeal to palates they perceive are all like Parker’s. Unfortunately, this is having Frankenstein results.

  10. Well, I for one am seeing some interesting differences between the 05s and the 06s
    and i don’t think its a matter of ramping anything up

  11. Yes, Steve, Alsace has truly lost it’s way. Most of the producers, except for the impeccable Trimbach, is leaving more and more sugar in hopes of emulating Zind-Humbrecht. (They all want the Parker Points that Bob bestows on Zind-Humbrecht’s sugar bombs.) If you want bracing minerality in your dry wines, you must go to Austria. Austria has become the gold standard for this style, while Alsace has become a joke.

  12. As a graduate of UCD, the only explanation I have for you is the sweetness you are tasting is due to RS, high alcohol or a combination of both. A high alcohol wine can be “dry” at a slightly higher RS because finishing the fermentation is too difficult for the yeast nd the higher alocohol acts as a preservative. RS is necessary for some wines, such as New Zealand SB, to temper the high acidity.

    We make “dry” wines (<0.2% RS) and definitely don’t get any brownie points for it. High alcohol can be due to a degree to the vineyard site, but RS is a producer decision. It gives sweetness and mouth-feel at the expense of flavor. In someone else’s words, RS “dumbs down” the wine.

    It must not be much fun to review wines from producers that seem to be less than honest about their product.

  13. Brad, you raise enough points for me to write a book! Just a couple thoughts. I’ve had this discussion of why certain supposedly “dry” wines with supposedly “modest” alcohol levels taste sweet, for many years. There are all sorts of theories. It’s not my way to accuse winemakers of lying on tech sheets (which themselves often differ in alcohol level from what’s on the label). Let’s just say that sometimes they may get a little carried away and mis-remember a number (as George W. Bush might say). As for it not being fun to review wine from producers who are less than honest, that’s no problem. I don’t expect complete and total honesty from every producer about every aspect of their winemaking practices, finances and so on. But it sure isn’t fun reviewing wines that are supposed to be dry, but aren’t.

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