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From Nun to Nirvana: Dispelling Sweet Wine Myths and Putting the Sweet Back on Your Wine List!

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

Sweet wines from Bordeaux Image courtesy of Union des Vins Doux de Bordeaux

PART ONE: What makes me sad about sweet wine……the sins of a nun and other stories...

If I had a nickel for every time a friend shrivels his/her nose at the very suggestion of ordering or tasting a ‘sweet’ wine, I would be rich. And, if I had a nickel for every time one of my WSET students goes into transports of ecstasy at their first taste of the enduring, complex, luscious finish of a Sauternes, a Tokaji Aszu or a Coteaux de Layon, I may not become rich, but I would be happy with the clink of those nickels in my pocket. But, it is a knife in my heart when one of them says, 'ick too sweet'…….

I agree wholeheartedly with Jancis Robinson who said: “Not much about wine makes me sad, but the average wine consumer’s attitude to sweet wines does.”

Sweet wines. Much maligned. Mainly thanks to the mass market wines of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the most popular of which were sweet. Yes, Blue Nun, Mateus, Lancer’s Rose, White Zinfandel - I am looking at you. Honorary mention to Boone’s Farm (or was that just a southern high school thing)?

These wines became popular at a time when the general public in the US was less educated about wines - and had less access to a wide range of wines - than today. Chablis (with the ‘s’ very sibilant) and Burgundy were served by the carafe as restaurant house wines and had as much relationship to their eponymous regions and grapes - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - as a glass of Dr. Pepper did.

But, back then there was less sugar shame and sugar made wine palatable to less sophisticated palates.

Blue Nun, one of the first globally recognized wine brands, in its distinctive blue flute bottle with nuns on the label, is doubly egregious for casting a negative pall on one of the greatest and most noble grapes of the world, Riesling. Blue Nun became synonymous with German wine (and by default Riesling), which in turn became synonymous with ‘cloying and sweet’ – even though Riesling, and German wines, run the gamut from teeth-shatteringly dry to lusciously sweet and beautifully balanced.

Blue Nun was (although no longer) a ‘liebfraulmilch’ –- a blend which by law is at least 70% Riesling, Silvaner, Kerner or Müller-Thurgau. But the reality is that very little Riesling made it into the blend. Blue Nun was mostly Muller-Thurgaud, a rather unfortunate cross between Riesling and the table grape Madeleine Royale -- a cross developed with the intention of an even more weather-hardy version of Riesling.

The Oxford Companion to Wine says it all about Muller-Thurgaud: “smelling vaguely peachy with a fat, flaccid mid-palate, too often with a slight suspicion of rot.”

No wonder it was liberally diluted with sweet grape juice.

Meanwhile, in the US, in the early 80s, White Zinfandel (which is actually not white but pink) became one of the biggest selling brands, making Zin the US' most popular grape variety. While Blue Nun was busily adding liquid sugar to its wines, White Zinfandel found another path to sweetness, and was invented, so the story goes, by Sutter Home, which was producing still red wine from the Zinfandel grape.

In 1972, the winemaker, Bob Trinchero, wanted to increase the concentration of a batch of Zinfandel, so he drained off some juice early in the fermentation process, before it had time to absorb too much color or tannin from the skins – a process known in winemaking as ‘saignee’ (to bleed). But why waste that pretty pink juice? Trinchero decided to ferment and then bottle it for a blush wine that, at 220 cases, did not exactly set the world on fire.

A few years later, that blush wine suffered a stuck fermentation, meaning the yeast gave up before finishing its job, leaving about two percent, or about 20 grams per liter, of residual sugar – giving birth to a simple, pink, medium sweet wine which was also low in alcohol.

And that version of White Zinfandel, did, indeed, set the wine world on fire (some may say in more ways than one!) By 1987, Sutter Home White Zinfandel was one of the best-selling wines in the United States, growing from 25,000 cases in 1981 to over 4.5 million at its peak. As a result, the Zinfandel grape held its pre-eminence in the US until the late 90s when Chardonnay took over, and White Zinfandel sales declined. (It should be noted, however, that White Zin is still an $800 million annual business.)

Given the ubiquity of these very sweet, very simplistic wines in the latter part of the 20th century, and their fall from grace and concomitant decline in sales as wine options on the supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists increased, it is not surprising that consumers have been conditioned that it is sophisticated to drink and order dry wines, but gauche and tacky to order and drink sweet wines. In fact, saying 'ick' is almost obligatory.

And yet, sweet wines comprise some of the world's greatest wines, with some of the most enduring histories -- and some of the most fantastic food pairing opportunities for our global cuisines.

And No, they are not just for dessert.

Sauternes. Tokaji Azsu and Essencia. Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru. Vouvray. Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese. Alsace Sélection de Grains Nobles. Ice Wine. Recioto Della Valpolicello. Vin Santo. And fortifieds! Port, Sherry, Madeira, Muscat de Beaume de Venise, Rutherglen Muscat and more. Each of these sweet wines has an extraordinary pedigree (some stretching back centuries); wine growing and wine making that is hard won, and they are finely tuned in the 'sweet spot' between zinging acid and lusciousness.

I love these beautifully balanced, delicious wines with everlasting finishes, and which bear absolutely no resemblance to those popular sugar water wines of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

These are deeply complex, profoundly nuanced wines.

Nirvana indeed.

I am on a mission to change consumer attitudes towards sweet wine, one student, one friend, one wine colleague, one reader, one delicious wine at a time. Will you join me on a trip to wine paradise? Stay tuned for three more posts on Sweet Wines!

Check Out Part Two of From Nun to Nirvana: A Tale of Beauty and the Beast - How Sweet Wine Gets Sweet

PS: A quick word about sugar, calories and sweet wine

For many consumers, a barrier to sweet wines is the presumption that they are necessarily higher calorie than dry wines. There are many myths about sugar in wine in the current 'skinny' wine label world. But, what most people don't know is that when calculating calories in wine, the abv (alcohol by volume) on the label is the most important measure - alcohol has more calories (7 per gram) than sugar in wine (4 per gram). So a low alcohol, medium sweet wine such as a White Zinfandel at around 8 abv, could easily have fewer calories than a higher alcohol wine that has been fermented to dryness, such as a dry Zinfandel at 14 abv or more.

Many sweet wines are lower alcohol because not all the grape sugar has been fermented to dryness and converted into alcohol, either because the fermentation has been interrupted or the yeast has not been able to finish its job. While there are significant exceptions (sweet sherries which have both added sugar and alcohol, Sauternes and Recioto Della Valpolicello, which can be very high alcohol, to name a few), many sweet wines balance calories with low alcohol, for example, a deliciously sweet Tokaji can clock in at a mere 11.5 abv, and an off dry Riesling Kabinett is practically diet rite!

Let's face it, wine is not a low calorie treat, but sweet wines are not necessarily the biggest offenders - and the richness of sweet wines means they are generally not going to be guzzled by the bottle (although I could be tempted!).

So go ahead and pour!

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