“America is two-sided about sweet wines,” says Regine Rousseau, CEO of Shall We Wine, a Chicago company that hosts wine, beer, and spirits tastings. On the one hand, juicy, jammy wines outsell dry varieties. “But if someone says, ‘oh, I love sweet wines,’ people look at them like, Oh my God you’re so uncouth.”
It’s a pervasive dichotomy, revealing the vast divide between what Americans think we should like, and what most people actually enjoy.
Whether or not we want to admit it, statistically, America does have a sweet tooth. In 2015, The Washington Post reported that each American consumes 126 grams of sugar per day, equivalent to three 12-ounce cans of Coca-Cola. We cut back a little circa 2017, but, according to the most recent data, we lead the world in per-capita sugar intake.
Despite or because of this, there’s a tendency among a certain segment of the wine community to sniff at anything with a semblance of sweetness. Many modern wine geeks discuss perceptible residual sugar (RS) as if it were a flaw. They sing the praises of bone-dry wines instead, describing their favorite bottles with adjectives borrowed from pricey yoga studios, like “clean,” “lean,” and “rejuvenating.”
There’s nothing wrong with preferring dry wines, of course. The problem comes from positioning them as somehow intellectually superior to fruitier wines with widespread appeal.
Instead of alienating the majority of the wine-buying public, we ought to re-examine who gets to determine what’s cool, who listens, and who is made to apologize. It shouldn’t need to be said, but: There’s nothing wrong with liking sweeter wines.
TJ Evans, Pinot Noir winemaker at California’s Domaine Carneros, says as recently as seven or eight years ago people would turn down rosé sparkling wine because they’d assume it would be overly fruity. “There’s certainly a stigma about sweet,” he says.
(Domaine Carneros’s Brut Rosé is, as its name suggests, a dry wine. The 2015 vintage has 0.9 grams of residual sugar.)
“We’re not Italians who grew up with wine at the table. We’re still suffering from Prohibition and the idea that alcohol is bad,” Rousseau says.
Americans didn’t start drinking wine in significant amounts until the latter half of the previous century. Sutter Home launched its White Zinfandel with 2 grams of residual sugar in 1972; by 1986, it was America’s most popular domestic wine. The top-selling imported wines circa 1981 were young, saccharine Lambruscos and Soaves.
Now, as fashion shifts from White Zinfandel to crisp, Provencal-style rosés, many drinkers are eager to distance themselves from the rubes of yesteryear.
“Sweetness is our most basic taste perception, the flavor sense that babies respond to with pleasure the quickest,” John deBary, author and bar expert, says. “So people have this idea that it’s very simple to like sweet things.”
“People love to shame people for drinking Moscato. I’m the first to say, ‘Enough with that,’” Rousseau says. “First of all, if people like Moscato let them drink it. And, there are some really great Moscatos out there. Moscato’s not some new thing, it’s been around for a while. So there have to be producers who know how to make it well.”
deBary compares sweet drinks to pop music: A certain community will look down on people who like them, but they absolutely can be made with integrity.
“You can have things that are extremely sweet and delicious as long as they’re balanced. And then they almost require a higher level of sophistication in order to wrap your mind around why sweetness makes sense, and how to identify the correct application of sweetness as opposed to using it as a cheat or a cover to smooth over some flaws,” he says.
Evans notes how low- and no-dosage sparkling wines, or those made with little or no added sugar, are becoming increasingly trendy in the industry. “Zéro dosage can be done very well, but it’s not right for every wine,” Evans says.
“Even bone-dry wines need sugar for balance,” explains Piper Kristensen, beverage director of Brooklyn’s Oxalis restaurant.
People who use terms like “zéro dosage” in casual conversation are a relatively small segment of the population. Still, their voices carry. As a result, many consumers now feel either embarrassed or defensive if they prefer the taste of wines with noticeable RS.
“I have no idea how we started shaming people for liking things that are sweet,” Rousseau says.
She’s noticed an interesting trend at Shall We Wine’s tasting demonstrations. If Rousseau pours two Cabernet Sauvignons, a fruit-forward Cab and one that’s dry and tannic, approximately 90 percent of consumers who taste both will prefer the fruit-forward wine. “However, nobody wants to admit that there’s something pleasant about sweetness,” Rousseau says.
“If you’re really cool you like the things that people hate, like the IPA arms race toward bitter beer. There’s a lot of masculinity wrapped up in that,” deBary says.
Misconceptions about who drinks what and why are widespread, including a well-documented history of people assuming women, particularly women of color, only drink sweet things.
Kristensen says most consumers have no idea how much sugar most alcoholic beverages contain, whether they’re drinking a dry Martini, fruity tiki drink, or bottle of Chenin Blanc. “I sell a lot of sugar and I sell a lot of water. That’s the secret to this business.”
It’s true. I recently sat next to someone at an NYC bar who ordered an off-the-menu Negroni, telling the bartender, “I don’t like sweet drinks.” In reality, one Negroni contains approximately 10 grams of sugar, more than an Old Fashioned (6.5 grams) or Kir Royale (7.3 grams). More importantly, why should anyone feel the need to make excuses for their drink order?
American drinks culture is at a turning point. Our fitful adolescence, rife with misinformation and bias, is over. It’s time we gain the confidence to welcome everyone to the table.
“There’s this need some people have to make wine pretentious,” Rousseau says, and it serves absolutely no one. Instead, we should make wine accessible. “We want people to fall in love with it so they start to explore.”
deBary lays out a roadmap:
“You have your first basic wines that you like, and then you find out about good wine, and then all these dry, weird wines. And then you maybe come back to auslese Riesling and you’re like, ‘Ohh, this is the real sh*t. What if sweetness were actually really good?’”