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Think Sweet, Buy Sweet

It’s a revolutionary concept
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 31, 2012 2:10pm ET

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.

Michael Haley
Eugene, OR —  January 31, 2012 8:13pm ET
OK - I admit it - I am a sucker for a glass of well-made sweet wine at the end of the day. For those of us in the Pacific NW, one need look no further than to WA rieslings. Between Hogue, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Snoqualmie, & Columbia Crest, to name a very few, there must be well over 500,000 cases of sweet rieslings made annually in WA alone. The fact I can get many of these at the grocery store for $6 to $8 a bottle doesn't hurt either!
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  February 1, 2012 1:06pm ET
It seems that beginners tend to prefer slightly sweeter wines. As time goes on their taste tends to move on to dryer wines. I wonder if the growth of sales in sweeter wines is a is a result of a new generation of wines drinkers? Also, muscat wines can be delicious, (preferably, before and after eating) and when properoy made, complex with a dry/sweet combination that can be intreguing.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 3, 2012 5:56pm ET

As an almost 30 year lover and booster of fine German Riesling all I can do is smile broadly, stay serene and keep a twinkle in my eye.

All things come to he who waits.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

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