There is an old saying in the wine business: “Americans talk dry but drink sweet.”
It’s true. I evaluate dozens of wines each week, and most are either actually sweet or so soft they would taste terrible with food – to me.
But before saying so in print, I always remember how many Americans consume hot dogs and burgers, fries, potato chips, onion rings, pretzels, nuts, and popcorn, and often with cola.
This is not the only nation on earth to appreciate sweet beverages with savory foods, but we adhere to that model in a huge way.
Indeed, “dry” wine may be more popular nationally today than it has ever been, but a lot of it isn’t dry in the traditional European sense of the word. (see explanation below.)
The use of quotation marks around the word defining what today’s wines taste like suggests that not all zero-sugar wines are actually dry on the palate. Many wines that historically were always dry today are not. And although many issues are at play here, only one of them is sugar.
It is easy to make certain a wine is slightly sweet (or euphemistically “off-dry”). Just make sure it has some sugar, which can be achieved legally in several ways. One is to simply stop the fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol.
This common tactic makes otherwise dry wines more appealing to people who don’t like dry wine. And there are apparently a lot of such people in this country.
One of the most popular wines in restaurants nationwide for the last several years has been Rombauer Chardonnay, which has often been written about as very soft if not actually sweet.
Another way to make a wine taste sweet is to guarantee it has plenty of alcohol. The higher the alcohol in a wine, the more it tastes a bit sweet. Dozens of California zinfandels have 15.5 percent alcohol or more, and a few are regularly above 16 percent. Such wines can taste sweet to me.
Many winemakers have told me they know of the wide use of high-proof alcohol added to red wines to make them “sweeter” on the tongue. When I said to them that was illegal, they often replied that detection is impossible and that in any case, the U.S. government has no system in place to monitor such issues. The government is ostensibly focused on compliance for wines that are in wide distribution.
Where you occasionally find a lot of alcohol is in U.S. wines that are $100 or more a bottle and sold only at tiny wineries. The government testing program never tests such wines for compliance with alcohol regulations. As long as a winery pays its federal tax, the government is satisfied.
(In Europe, partially because of a cloudy, continental climate and regular rainfall during the growing season, alcohols are typically closer to 12 percent. Most California wines are higher.)
Another way to make zero-sugar wines taste sweet is to make certain that acid levels are very low and pH levels very high.
A recent article in a San Francisco newspaper spoke of Atlas Wine Co., which unabashedly markets wines targeted at sweet-tooth Americans. The article had a line, “Though Atlas wines carry no residual sugar, they taste fruity, ripe and rich.”