Wine: Sweet mystery

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Celebrate riesling this summer. Photo / NZH
Celebrate riesling this summer. Photo / NZH

Sweetness, considered a positive in so many areas of life has sadly become soured in wine because of its association with being old-fashioned or unsophisticated. However, in the spirit of this Summer of Riesling, I'm asking you to put aside any preconceptions you may have and join me on a journey into the dolce vita.

Historically, sweet wines were some of the most prized in the world. Fortifieds such as port and madeira and dessert wines such as sauternes and German stickies, were once the things to be seen sipping in high society. However, a spate of insipid, sickly mainstream brands in the 70s and 80s caused sweetness to be equated with low quality, while the fact that sweetness is a character that people regard as unrefined.

Before I extrapolate further on this stickiest of subjects, I have an admission to make. I find it easy to forego dessert and see myself as someone with more savoury tastes. However, give me a good glass of something sweet and I'm thrilled by the way the best of them tread the razor's edge between sweet opulence and rapier-like acidity.

Good examples are never cloying. Some don't even taste sweet: it's all a question of balance. Take a variety such as riesling, with inherently high levels of acidity that mean it can support higher sugar levels while giving an impression of dryness.

Or a style like Champagne, where picking the grapes when unripe and acid levels are elevated, means even brut (dry) styles can contain sugar at a level that would make other wines taste distinctly sweet.

This interplay between sugar and acid is something that's been taken into consideration in the creation of the International Riesling Foundation's taste scale. As sugar levels vary across this variety like no other, causing confusion over the style drinkers can expect, it's developed a graphic that has been adopted by some NZ wineries to plot perceived sweetness using the ratio of acid to sugar.

Even if you're a dyed in the wool dry wine drinker, you will have enjoyed wines containing some residual sugar (or RS, the techie term for the quantity of sugar remaining unfermented in a finished wine measured in grammes per litre). As some sugars are resistant to the action of yeast, most wines are not technically bone dry.

What's widely considered to be dry can have an RS level of as much as 5g/l.

Winemakers also often choose to leave a soupcon of residual sugar in the mix to soften or fill out a wine and give it more mainstream appeal, as is the case with many commercial brands.

Studies have found that though people may say they prefer dry wines, in practice they're more partial to those with some sweetness. A case in point is the popularity of our pinot gris locally, most of which would be categorised as off-dry.

However, you'd be hard pressed to find any mention of this on many labels of pinot gris or indeed any variety that's not an out-and-out dessert wine. Sweetness has become the descriptor that dare not speak its name as wineries fear prejudice against it may put people off buying.

Getting wines with some sweetness into people's glasses to overcome this unfounded fear is an approach that's embraced by the Summer of Riesling, currently in full swing. Though rieslings can be made dry, our conditions mean that many of our finest have a hint of sweetness, with styles across the spectrum being promoted on wine lists and through tastings across the country by the initiative.

It's time for sweetness to step into the light. Winemakers should be proud to proclaim its presence on their labels and drinkers encouraged to get over their hang-ups and give sweeter wines another go.

www.summerofriesling.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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