How Sweet It Is: The Joy of Residual Sugar

I don’t know about you, but when I was a younger man I ate sweets all the time. Luckily, I was born into a family with a mother who had mastered the fine art of baking; so I was in a pretty good spot to indulge whenever I felt like it. But as I’ve gotten older my consumption of sweets has taken a back seat to more sophisticated and cultured delicacies. And bluntly put–maybe I’m just sick of sweets.  I do know plenty of people who always recoil from the dessert course. “It’s too sweet!” is the most popular explanation.

Now—-perhaps I can use this reasoning to explain why so many people are often reluctant to the idea of trying a wine that is sweet or even off-dry.  When I sometimes recommend an off-dry Riesling to customers and friends,  more often than not I get a skeptical quip about the wine being “a bit too sweet” for their taste.

But this leaves me wondering—have we just simply grown out of our taste for sweets as we have gotten older?

It seems like a valid assumption. I can totally understand why people do not eat or drink anything with a certain level of sugar content. And as far as wine goes, I am very much a lover of old-world, traditional wine making. When it comes to a red wine my basic criteria is dry and not overly fruit-forward.  And when it comes to white, I always gravitate towards a dry white Rioja or Muscadet .

These steep, picturesque vineyards in Germany's Mosel produce some of the finest sweet wines in the world.

But interestingly enough, as I continually expand my palate, it is becoming obvious that my past penchant for sweets may be coming back, and with a little faith and the right food pairing, the most complex of all white wines are waiting to be enjoyed.

Personally the main thing I seek out when selecting an off-dry wine is a high level of acidity.   This is of the utmost importance for the cautious consumer because without the high acidity the wine may taste too sweet, flabby and cloying (more like Maple Syrup than wine).  For the first time Riesling drinker, I would suggest the Donnhoff Tonschiefer Trocken 2009.  On the nose there are aromas of green apples, pear and unripe peach. On the palate, there is a notably crisp acidity to combat the subtle amount of residual sugar. A very well-balanced wine, it is a remarkable pairing with Asian dishes or curry dominated Indian food.

For the more adventurous, I would try the Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec 2008. Although “demi-sec” literally means “medium-dry” it is usually fairly sweet. More of a special occasion wine, the nuances of this Vouvray are extraordinary and easy to appreciate.  There is a tight nose of nuts, herbs and minerals with layered honeyed notes. The palate is concentrated and textured with the sugar level balanced perfectly by the high acidity.

Even within the same bunch Chenin Blanc grapes ripen at different times. Here you can see some have turned almost to raisins while others are just ripening.

An appellation in the Loire Valley,  Vouvray is usually made from hand-harvested Chenin Blanc grapes. Domaine Huet usually completes at least two or three ‘tries’ (passages through the vineyard) in October and early November to select only the finest grapes. The climatic conditions vary quite a bit in the Loire, and each Chenin grape responds by producing a range of different sugar levels. Thus the wines produced in Vouvray vary in sweetness according to vintage. The basic rule is the better the vintage; the sweeter the wines can be made. For an interesting brunch pairing, try scrambled eggs and seared scallops. Or for this Thanksgiving, drink a glass alongside a nice piece of honey-glazed ham.

So if you are thinking about expanding your tasting palate to the world of off-dry and sweet wines be sure to remember to pay note to wines with high levels of acidity and your transition will hopefully be as smooth as mine has been.

Other recommendations:

1) Selbach Oster Spatlese 2009  $24.99

2) Bourillon-Dorleans Demi-Sec 2008 $19.99

3) Hexamer Medderscheimer Kabinett $22.99

4) Donnhoff Neiderhauser Hermannshole Spatlese $64.99

– Wes Kirk


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