Friday, 3 October 2008

Some like it sweet

Do you like sweet wine? Thought not. Admitting to liking sweet wine is social suicide, a guilty pleasure to be indulged in in the privacy of your own home. I would like to use this column to come out as a lover of sweet wines – and I am going to try to convince you to join me in trying to overthrow one of wine’s great taboos.

Sweet wines have an image problem, there’s no doubt. For many (for me anyway) it conjures memories of early wine-drinking days when we merrily downed bottles of rather cheap and nasty German wine – Liebfraumilch, Hock and the like. Or family Sunday lunches accompanied by a bottle of Sainsbury’s Medium Sweet Spanish White. Those wines have done the cause of sweet wines immense harm with their artificial, confected sweetness, used merely to disguise the distinctly poor quality wine underneath.

But putting the past aside, consider whether you really don’t like sweet wine. Some of the wines that are considered dry, are in fact technically off-dry – that is, they have some detectable sweetness. It might not surprise you to know that some Australian chardonnays are not bone dry: Hardy’s VR Chardonnay 2007, for example has a residual sugar level of 5.5 grams per litre. Residual sugar is the final amount of sugar left in a wine when it is actually put into the bottle. Moving back a few steps, that sugar starts off in the ripe grapes harvested to make wine. During fermentation, as anyone who ever watched the Holsten Pils advert of the 1980s will remember, the sugar is turned into alcohol. If all the available grape sugar is used up, a bone dry wine results. If not, then the amount left is the residual sugar of the final wine. Humans, apparently, begin to detect sugar at a level of 4 grams per litre – so any wine with a level above this, we will sense as having some sweetness.

In theory anyway: going back to Hardy’s VR Chardonnay, it may be technically off-dry, but I would bet most drinkers would not class it as such. The sweetness is tied up with the ripeness and weight of the wine and does not “stick out”. And it’s not just white wines that have more sugar in than you would think: Concha y Toro Sunrise Merlot 2007 has 6 grams per litre of residual sugar. In both these cases we are looking at relatively cheap (around £5) wines aimed at the mass market, made by big producers who must surely be in complete control of their wine-making processes. That sugar is there deliberately to enhance the wines, to give a sense of ripeness and more body – and perhaps to cover up some less enjoyable characters in the wine.

Sauvignon Blanc – the wine that we can’t get enough of – frequently has sugar levels that technically put it into the off-dry category: Nobilo Five Fathoms Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from New Zealand for example has 8 grams per litre. Champagne routinely has 11 or 12 grams per litre of sugar even though it’s labelled Brut (or dry). What’s the story?

The trouble is, sugar is only one half of the story: lingering in the shadows is acidity, the yin to sugar’s yang in wine. To put it simply, the higher the level of acidity in a wine, the higher the level of sugar can be without us sensing the wine as sweet. Hence Brut Champagne has quite a bit of sugar in it, yet we still perceive it as dry. Equally, Sauvignon Blanc has crisp acidity and can tolerate a higher level of residual sugar than other styles of wine.

So, we’ve established that most of us do in fact drink sweet wines, even as we profess not to like them. Now it’s but a short step to embracing sweet wines and revelling in the sheer pleasure of a luscious dessert wine.

But if that feels like too much too soon, then follow my five easy steps to sweet wine heaven:

1. Start yourself off gently: if you’re having a pudding involving berries, especially autumn raspberries, try a sparkling Moscato d’Asti, or Asti Spumante – light, frothy, fun and definitely sweet.
2. Move onto a chilled Tawny Port with olives, nuts and nibbles. You can even serve Warre’s Otima, widely available for around £11 a bottle, on ice for a classy aperitif.
3. Try a late harvest chenin blanc from the Loire – some of the lightest of the true dessert wines and with fantastic crisp acidity to balance out the sugar. Great to have with any kind of apple pudding, especially apple tart. Give Waitrose’s Château Gaudrelle Réserve Spéciale 2005, Vouvray for £7.99 a go.
4. Now you’re ready for the ultimate dessert wine: Sauternes. Rich, luscious barley sugar, honeycomb and dried apricot flavours are a fantastic match for blue cheese, especially Roquefort. A half bottle of Waitrose’s own label Sauternes, made by top-rated Château Suduiraut costs £9.99 (residual sugar 103 grams per litre by the way).
5. Next time you want an instant dinner party pudding, try top quality vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of Pedro Ximenez (or PX for short) sherry. For extra indulgence you could soak raisins in the PX first and bung them on the ice cream too. This stuff is almost beyond dessert wine with residual sugar of mind-boggling levels of (dentists and nutritionists look away now) 400 grams per litre. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference PX and Tesco’s finest* PX are both absurdly good value at £7.19 and £5.49 respectively.

Once you’ve mastered all five steps you will have conquered your fear and you too can join me as an “out and proud” lover of sweet wine.

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