I talk to lots of people each week about wine. Most of them don’t know what they want to drink. This makes sense – they are usually about to embark on a blind tasting menu at the restaurant where I work and have no idea what they are about to eat. To help them figure it out, I usually ask if there are certain kinds of wines they definitely do not want to drink. Interestingly, their answers rarely vary. Over-oaked, buttery Chardonnay typically gets an immediate thumbs down. Merlot fares almost no better. But one kind of wine is even more often categorically marginalized/dismissed wholesale: sweet wines. We aren’t talking dessert wines. I mean wines that have residual sugar.

Residual sugar is the amount of sugar that is in a wine after its fermentation cycle is complete. If, for example, a vat of pressed grape juice starts off with 10g/L of sugar and the winemaker chooses to halt the fermentation after 8g of sugar have been gobbled up and converted to alcohol by the yeasts, then you will have a wine with 2g/L of residual sugar.

Most people dismiss “sweet” wines out of hand, and I’ll be the first to admit some well-founded reasons exist for doing so.

For instance, many cheap, sweet wines are in the marketplace. Some of these wines (if you can call them that) have sugar added to them after the wine has completed fermentation. Adding sugar to a wine is a surefire way fill quality gaps and cover up faults. If the acidity level in your wine is through the roof, just add sugar. If some of the aromas wafting from the barrel are unpleasant, just add sugar. I think of these kinds of products as beverages, not really wines. They have been manipulated in such an overt fashion that they’ve lost their resemblance to wine. So I agree, people are right to reject such imposters out of hand.

But consumers who reject any sweetness in wine at all are wildly overcompensating.

The highly regarded Riesling and Champagne importer Terry Theise has mused about why so many people dislike sweet wines. In one online interview he asks people who are opposed to any sweetness in their wines to consider different types of sweetness, say the sweetness of an apple versus that of a Twinkie. Most people are not opposed to sweetness in their apples, quite the opposite, actually. But Twinkies are a different story. As Terry surmises, Twinkies are merely sweet, a quality that doesn’t satisfy most of us because it lacks balance. The apple, on the other hand, is a more complex sweetness experience because apples are also acidic.


In the wine world, too much sugar without a supplemental boost of acidity is called cloying, an excess of sweetness. I don’t gravitate towards cloying wines, and I suspect that most people, when they eschew sweet wines, are actually opposed to cloying wines. I get it. I believe that our palates have evolved to detect harmony of sensation. When we detect a lack of harmony we grow bored and go in search for what’s lacking. It’s why bakers add salt to their chocolate chip cookies. The salt makes the bittersweet chocolate come alive not because it is more sweet or more chocolatey, but because it creates a contrast that is exciting and interesting.

Counterintuitive? Yes. True? A thousand times, yes.

In the wine world, thankfully, you can find a plethora of excellent, balanced, complex wines with residual sugar that are not merely sweet and are far from cloying. In fact, some of the very best wines in the world — in that they reflect the most complex, dynamic harmony of flavors — are wines drinkers often reject for being in the “sweet” category: Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

If I’ve done my job here, by now you’re probably hoping for suggestions, and I’m happy to give you some. Both of these wines have residual sugar, but the key is that they also have acidity. Acidity and sugar are good friends because they balance each other out. Lemonade is a good example of this friendship. I’m quite sure that most of you don’t chug quarts of freshly squeezed lemon juice, or eat full handfuls of granulated sugar. But put them together and, voila!

My two suggestions are a Riesling and a Gewürztraminer. Both are German and both inexpensive because they aren’t trendy.

South Portland Wine Company distributes a number of wines from Terry Theise’s German portfolio. Terry is cut from admirable cloth, both as a wine importer and a human. His book, “Reading between the Wines,” is a favorite of mine. Look out for the J. & H. Selbach, Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay, Kabinett Riesling. Kabinett, as distinct from Spätlese and Auslese, is the German designation given to the grapes that are picked first during harvest. These grapes have the highest levels of acidity, which make them ideal for making wines with a modicum of sweetness. Drinking this bottle is like drinking liquid Granny Smith apples with the addition of alcohol.

Pine State Beverage brings in the Villa Wolf Gewürztraminer. I don’t know how readily available it is since most retail spots don’t keep heavy stock on these kinds of wines, but if you know the distributor of a wine, most shops will bring in special orders. It’s an off-dry wine, which means it’s in between dry and sweet. It’s all liquid peaches and orange blossoms and finishes with a nice little acidity corset to keep the sweetness from spilling out all over the place. Let others spend $50 on the latest Chardonnay; you can drop just a hair over $14 and be quite happy with this one.

You don’t have to avoid sweet wines. You just have to avoid the trashy ones. The two above will get you started on the right path to appreciating sweetness in wine.

Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland – Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw – and one in Boston.

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