Think Sweet, Buy Sweet

It’s a revolutionary concept
Jan 31, 2012

A report at an industry event in California last week caused a stir when it pegged a significant portion of a healthy 4.5 percent increase in U.S. wine sales to sweet red wine. Sweet wines in general seem to be driving the bump in the wine market currently bringing smiles to the big boppers of the wine industry, the ones who count their success on how many millions of cases we buy.

To be sure, it’s not the only segment of the wine world that’s selling better these days. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris were up 12 percent, Malbec 40 percent and unoaked Chardonnay 100 percent. Meanwhile, Merlot and Syrah dropped in sales.

But America’s sweet tooth shows through clearly in the hottest categories. Moscato posted a 64 percent increase (admittedly over a relatively small base, but still …). References to Moscato are slipping into hip-hop songs. Reports from the nurseries say that 25 percent of the vines being planted in California are Muscats.

Sangria and chocolate-infused wines are making a splash, too.

In related news, Yellow Tail, the huge-selling brand from Australia, introduced a new wine last week called Sweet Red Roo. It’s a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and a smattering of other varieties, according to the winery’s press release. No sugar is added, it’s just left a bit sweet after fermentation. It will be interesting to see how that one fares in my blind tastings.

Cynics might cough delicately into their hands and note that Yellow Tail’s wines have tasted noticeably sweet from the beginning. A bit of residual sugar has been one of the dirty little secrets of mass-market wines (including some of the most prominent U.S. brands, among them Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay), and Yellow Tail is no exception.

I am not especially sensitive to sweetness. My threshold hovers around .5 to .6 percent, while many of my fellow tasters can spot residual sugar at .3 or .4. But even I could tell that Yellow Tail’s wines were sweet. Early on, I confirmed with the winemaker that R.S. levels were around .7 to 1.2 percent. Recent vintages of the flagship Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot have tasted drier, and the big-selling Pinot Grigio shows a nice tang of acidity to balance the sugar.

It’s a cliché to say that Americans talk dry and drink sweet, but sweet wines have always been a secret preference among non-connoisseurs. Sweet Red Roo, to my knowledge, is the first red table wine that boldly trumpets right on the label that it’s sweet. I wish I had been a fly on the wall at the marketing meetings that dreamed up that approach. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Yellow Tail, which came out of nowhere to become the No. 1 imported brand in the U.S. market.

Traditionalists, who want their table wines dry, may cringe. But in the end I think this is a positive development. Rather than pretending a wine is dry when it’s actually sweet, those who like sweet wines can acknowledge that preference and buy accordingly.

And if sweet is no longer considered a dirty word by wine consumers, maybe they might discover how great the true, traditional sweet wines of the world can be. I’ve always said that only the most sophisticated and least sophisticated wine drinkers admit to buying sweet wines. A little love for Moscato is a good thing.

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