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Memo to winemakers: Cut the sugar toot sweet!

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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.

DEPARTMENT OF OOPS!

This just in from BBC News:

Italians get wine instead of water from faucets

Click here for the full story.


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