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The Rap on Sweet Wines

“We do whatever; Hypno, Cris though, I mean whatever; Saracco Moscato it do taste better” – Kanye West.  Hip hop song artists like West, Lil'Kim and Ab-Soul have helped lead the resurgence in sweet wine.  According to wine research consultants Gomberg & Fredrikson, sales of the sweet wine Moscato, have grown over 80% in the United States in the last 12 months.   Americans have had a love / hate relationship with sweet wines for decades; however in recent years sweet wines have been gaining in popularity.

Let's begin with some basics.  Sweet wine is wine that has perceptible residual sugar remaining in the wine after the completion of the fermentation process.  Dry wines conversely, have little or no natural sugar remaining.  In some instances, a wine may be vinified dry and made sweet by adding sugar or grape concentrate.

Residual sugar concentration is most commonly expressed as grams per liter of wine or a percentage of weight to volume.  For example a wine with 25g/l of residual sugar contains 2.5% by volume or about five teaspoons in a 750ml bottle.   For reference, a 12 oz. can of Coca Cola 39 grams or 110 g/l. Unfortunately, wine producers in the United States are not required to list residual sugar on the label or our lives as wine consumers would be much easier.  This may change in the future however, if we follow our neighbors to the North.  In May, 2012 Ontario adopted the practice of using bin tags (also known as shelf tags, those little tags on wine shop shelves that list price, reviews, awards and the like) to list actual sugar concentrations in grams per liter.  The information for many wines is also available in the products section of their web site (http://www.lcbo.com).

Sugar can be detected by humans in the range of 8 – 12 g/l, something that is important to remember as the ability to taste sweetness does vary.  Sweetness is often confused with other flavors and aromas.  Wines that are intense with fruit flavors, so called “fruit bombs” are often confused as being sweet, but a wine can be rich with fruit aromas yet be dry.  Alcohol content, acidity, tannin levels and even serving temperature can all affect how sweet a wine tastes.

The graph and chart below provides an approximation of sweetness based on EU regulations.



 

Description of Sweetness

 

Residual Sugar
Grams per Liter of Wine

 

 

Representative Wines

Dry

1-9 Virtually all wine has some residual sugar however; no detectible sweetness is present in these wines.

 

Most chardonnays, cabernet sauvignons, Chiantis, Zinfandels, and sparkling wines labeled natural or extra brut.

 

German wines that are up to 9g/l are labeled Trocken, French as sec, Spanish as seco, and in Italy secco.

 

Medium Dry

10-18 These wines will have perceptible sweetness to most tasters at the upper end.  The lowest detectable sugar level for most people is in the 8 -12 g/l range.  Although being described as having a “touch of sweetness” wines in this category are considered dry.

 

Most Merlots, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and some chardonnays (Kendall-Jackson, Toasted Head) as well as some Zinfandels (Yellow Tail).

 

German wines that are up to 18g/l are labeled Halbtrocken, French as demisec, Spanish as semiseco, and in Italy Abboccato.

 

Medium

19 – 45 In the medium category virtually all tasters will consider a wine sweet.

 

White Zinfandel, German Riesling and Gewürztraminer, many Vouvrays.

 

German wines that have up to 45g/l are labeled Lieblich, French as Moelleux,

Spanish as Semidulce, and in Italy, Amabile.

 

Sweet

45+ Most wines in this category would be considered liquid sugar by most tasters.  Remember however, that some of the most prized wines in the world reach these lofty sugar levels.

Hungarian Tokaji, most Ports, Moscato, many Sauternes, late harvest wines.

 

German wines with more than 45g/l are labeled süss, French as Doux, Spanish as Dulce, and in Italy, Dolce.

 

So if a touch of sweetness is to your fancy, here are a few wines to add to your repertoire.

Moscato – A very sweet wine that is taking America by storm, Moscato is made from the Muscat grape, known it Italy as Moscato.  The Muscat grape is highly aromatic, with apricot, orange blossom and lemon aromas common.  The grape is vinified with very high levels of residual sugar, and is most popular in Italy as a light sparkling wine called frizzante – the best known of which are Asti Spumante and Moscato d'Asti.  Popular because it's a transitional wine, low in alcohol (5%-6%), aromatic and sweet, it's rapidly becoming to this decade what white zinfandel was to the 1980s.  All of the major U.S. and global produces have Moscato offerings including Gallo (Barefoot Cellars 65g/l), Sutter Home, Robert Mondavi Woodbridge (55g/l), Cupcake, Voga Moscato Frizzante IGT (66g/l, Jacobs Creek (49g/l) and Yellow Tail 85g/l.

Riesling - Riesling can be vinified in a wide range of sweetness from very dry to the world famous Trockenbeerenauslese – made from selected dried berries resulting in wine with over 100g/l of residual sugar.  With Rieslings, German in particular, higher acidity levels often mask the taste of sugar.  For this reason a fine German Riesling with as much as 45g/l of residual sugar may only taste mildly sweet.  For sweeter Rieslings, look for Halbtrocken or Süss on the label.

Vouvray – These Chenin Blanc based wines from the Loire Valley of France are easy drinking for the new comer and equally delightful with a light chicken dish or virtually any fruit based dessert.  It is important to remember that not all Chenin Blanc is vinified to contain residual sugar.  South African Steen, as it's sometimes called, is generally dry (Cathedral Cellar 2011 Chenin Blanc and Graham Beck Bowed Head Chenin Blanc 2009 both weigh in with 5g/l residual sugar).  Vouvrays follow the Sec, demi-sec and Moelleux classification and can contain as much as 100 g/l.  Landing in the medium category are beautifully crafted mouth feel rich wines such as Bougrier 'V' Vouvray (25g/l), Domaine De Vaugondy Brut (14g/l, and Vincent Raimbault Les Terrages Demi Sec Vouvray 2010 (19g/l). 

White Zinfandel – The wine for “non-wine drinkers” in the 1970's and 1980's, White Zinfandel retains a loyal following of consumers outselling its full bodied red counterpart Zinfandel by over five to one.  The light pink aromatic wine is low in alcohol (generally less than 10%), medium acidity and sports residual sugar in the range of 20-40 g/l.  Leading producers include Beringer 39 g/l, Gallo (Barefoot) 34 g/l, Sutter Home 39 g/l,  and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge 29 g/l.

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