Chow Town

Wines never want to admit they’re sweet, but there’s really no shame

Moscato can have as much as 9 grams of sugar. But not all Moscatos are that sweet.
Moscato can have as much as 9 grams of sugar. But not all Moscatos are that sweet.

How can something liquid be dry? The use of “dry” to describe a drink that isn’t sweet is a marketing innovation of sorts that dates back to Champagne in the 19th century.

But The New York Times, citing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defined it with numbers: “A five-ounce glass of red table wine typically contains about 0.9 grams of total sugar, while a glass of chardonnay contains about 1.4 grams. A sweet dessert wine, typically served in a smaller two- to three-ounce glass, contains as much as 7 grams of sugar. Depending on where the wine was made, the total may include added sugar or sugar from unfermented grape juice, along with the sugar that occurs naturally in the grapes.”

This is not particularly helpful, since talking about averages in wine is about as insightful as saying baseball players hit an average of eight homers a year, when the question is really: How many homers do my favorite players hit?

For Kansas Citians this year, not enough, but that’s a matter for a different area of the paper. When it comes to most red wines, the USDA is pretty close to it, with most good red wines having closer to one quarter of the 0.9 grams mentioned. With good whites, it’s even lower. But in both cases, it depends upon what you’re drinking.

The last five years have seen a meteoric rise in slyly sweetened wines, whether red or white, with some having 2 grams of sugar or more per glass. If you’re a Moscato fan, that can ramp up to 8 or 9 grams, with the good news being that Moscatos that sweet often have only half the alcohol of standard table wine.

But from a marketing standpoint, the folks selling wines with those sugar levels are not just sly, they’re even a bit deceitful. Take Apothic Red: It’s marketed as “smooth” and “velvety,” but nowhere on the bottle, on the website or on any of the winery’s packaging will the word “sweet” appear. Why not? Do they not trust us or is it that “sweet” wine still has an unfair rap as something cheap, when some of the world’s greatest wines are sweet?

The progenitors of all this silliness were brands like Glen Ellen and, most notably, Kendall Jackson (KJ) with their Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. Upon release in the 1980s, it was noticeably sweet; many of us guessed that it had almost 20 grams of sugar per glass. We guessed at it because KJ wasn’t talking, and their success speaks volumes as to consumer preference. “We talk dry and drink sweet,” so the wine saying goes. And KJ has “dried” out its wine since the early days, so its sugar has considerably lessened. Plenty of other wineries have joined them; Rombauer is another success story of marketing through omission.

None of this is criticism of anyone’s taste. I drink sweet wines quite enthusiastically, I’m happy to admit. And if you like them as well, you should do so too.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only four people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a wine column for The Kansas City Star’s Chow Town section and blog.