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Berger: Sweet reds that are dry


A situation is developing that surely will pose problems for some wine lovers and at the same time may thrill new wine consumers.

And it is utterly insidious because no one is writing about it and wine merchants seem unwilling to discuss it.

I refer to sweet red wines that pretend that they're dry.

A recent trend among some wine companies is to make sweet red wines and label them to reveal that fact. The phrase "Sweet Red" is popping up on many labels — a trend I applaud. But what also seems to be happening is a new style of red wine that isn't so labeled, and looks for all the world as if it's dry. But it isn't. At least to me.

I realize that the word "dry" is in the mouth of the taster. What's dry to you could well be sweet to me. And this leads us to a complex discussion of acid levels, pH, and other factors that are hard to describe in print.

To truly reveal the problems I face in writing about this, I would have to pour you four or five red wines and see what you, and I, thought about their dryness or sweetness levels. Such a tactic was used successfully at a major Riesling event recently in Washington since the amount of sweetness in a Riesling is crucial to potential Riesling buyers.

The situation may be a lot graver to buyers of red wines, especially those who hope to age them. That's because years after a wine is purchased, it's pretty hard for a disappointed buyer to go back to a wine merchant and say, "Hey, I thought this wine I was buying was dry. But it isn't."

Some years ago it was apparent that some expensive cabernet sauvignons were being sold with acid levels that I believed to be insufficient for the wines to age well. Many of these wines were flabby and tasted slightly sweet; some may have had more than a trace of sugar.

Since higher acidity and lower pH are directly correlated with the slow and appropriate red wine maturity process, these lower-acid, higher-pH reds were disturbing. Some people liked them when the wines were young, but I believed they were doomed as aging wines.

Since I almost never write about badly structured wines, I assumed that the old saying about caveat emptor - buyer beware - applied. And I ignored them, and still do.

But recently I have seen many red wines that are simply labeled "Cabernet Sauvignon" or "Merlot" and whose labels say nothing about how sweet the wine tastes.

I suppose I could write a column on all the wines I taste that are poorly structured to go with food (which is the case with most sweet red wines), but people do not read wine columns to find out what not to buy.

Moreover, this issue is fraught with exceptions that confuse the issue even further.

For one, take red wines with higher alcohols. The more alcohol a wine has, the more it shows a faint sweetness, which may be misread as sugar.

Also, it is impossible to make a red wine without any sugar at all. Typically, "totally dry" red wines contain between 2 and 3 grams per liter of sugar, which is usually not detectable by the human palate as sweetness.

But with the sweet reds I am speaking of, the amount of sugar left in the wine is between 5 and 10 grams per liter (0.5% to 1.0%), and here the sugar is readily detectable to wine lovers.

But newcomers to wine consider this to be dry, which is why the recent conscious decision to make some red wines with actual residual sugar has been so widespread: It may help to sell the wine.

<strong>Wine of the Week:</strong> 2011 HandCraft Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($13) — The aromas are interesting, and the balance of the wine isn't bad, especially if served slightly chilled. I can't be certain this red wine has residual sugar, but it tastes like it does. It appears to illustrate the sort of wines we are now seeing — and will surely appeal to some wine buyers.

<em>Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.</em>