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Sweet Wines Have Their Place...

...in the back of the fridge

Eric Arnold
Posted: September 8, 2006

When people start to try new wines regularly, they often confuse the tastes of fruity and sweet. I'm no exception, and it took a long time for me to understand the difference between the two since the first wine I got truly hooked on was Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. These wines are very fruity; people often detect any combination of tropical and regular fruit flavors in these wines, such as passion fruit, gooseberry, grapefruit, orange, lemon, lime, pear, nectarine, peach, banana, guava, mango, pineapple and apple, just to name a few.

But the wines aren't sweet, because they have almost no sugar in them. They're bone-dry, usually, and if they do have even a little sugar, it's only enough to balance out the acidity. Just to give you an idea, in case you've never had these wines, the blood in the movie Aliens--which eats through solid metal--is only slightly less acidic than a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. But in a good way.

So, to my dismay, when I recently opened up a couple of my favorite Marlborough Sauvignons for friends, they each took a sip and said, "Mmmm ... That's really sweet." For a while, I gave up explaining the difference between fruity and sweet, because when someone tried to explain it to me, it never sank in. It took time to understand. But I've found the perfect solution that helps people taste the difference much more quickly.

A few weeks ago in my local wineshop they had a few cases of Dr. L, a Riesling from Germany made by Ernst Loosen. Loosen makes some excellent (and expensive) wines, but this particular one is very good and cheap. It's a Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, or QbA for short, the driest category among German sweet wines, but this wine is seriously sweet since winemakers are allowed to add sugar to QbAs (the fancy term is "chaptalization," if you want to get technical). Dr. L has about 20 grams of residual sugar per liter, whereas the typical Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has about 2 or 3 grams of sugar. I kept the bottle of Dr. L in my fridge, knowing that eventually yet another friend would come over, try a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc I'd opened and declare that it tasted sweet.

As soon as that happened, I went to the fridge and reached past the leftover pizza and Chinese food (purchase date unknown). There in the back was my bottle of Dr. L, and I pulled it out and poured my friend a glass.

"Ugh!" she said as she sipped it. "That tastes like Kool-Aid!"

The Dr. L wine is much better than Kool-Aid--better than most overtly sweet, inexpensive wines, and my friend actually came to like it quite a bit after a couple more sips. But her taste buds' initial reaction to the transition from a dry, fruity Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to an off-dry German Riesling was like watching Aliens and then going straight into Pretty Woman. Most importantly, it illustrated the difference.

So if you have friends who like wine but are having trouble getting over that first fruity-versus-sweet hurdle, just keep a bottle of sweet Riesling in the back of your fridge. There are plenty of good ones available from Germany, New York and Washington, just to name a few, that cost $10 or less. (My Dr. L was $9.) It's a quick, cheap lesson that's a big leap in anybody's wine education.

After that, hopefully you'll be able to drink some nice, dry, fruity wines with your friends, and they'll enjoy them in the same way that you do. If not, and you keep having to buy more sweet wines ... switch to beer when you have people over.

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