Wine: Increasing Sweetness, Mixed Results

High sugar content is making formerly dry wines sweeter and softer, often detracting from their identity


Do red wines taste sweeter than they once did? Or is it just that our palates change, so that the more we taste, the more we lean toward drier wines?

Most likely, it’s the wine. There’s no doubt in my mind that the sweetness in many red wines has been increasing, although labels still tell us the wine is dry. Technically, those wines probably are still within the accepted definition of what’s dry versus what’s sweet.

Part of this issue is the competitive market in North America, which marketing divisions of wine companies are constantly trying to reassess, looking for the next big trend and how to best the competition with it. Yet, that’s always been the case.

The only way to know what’s happening would be to sugar-test a lot of wines in a lab. The alternative is to trust our palates, and many good palates say they spot a trend in higher sugar. Why?

First, there has been an upsurge in interest, particularly among young wine drinkers, in sweeter wines and even in ports — even if it’s not the sweetness that they’re identifying. And that youth market is the one everybody wants to capture.

Regardless of generation, the first wines that the majority of new wine drinkers like when they come into the market will be a wine that’s invariably somewhat sweet and soft. Eventually, most will start exploring drier wines, both red and white.

The reason for this preference is that sweetness cushions some of the more jarring elements of wine, such as acidity and certain tannins. This is also why California wines, rather than those of colder climates, tend to be favored by younger drinkers.

In California, winemakers can ripen any wine longer than can be done in cool climates, which means developing more sugar in the grapes before harvesting and crushing them.

In cooler climates, the grapes used to make dry reds get fully ripe to make excellent wine, but they don’t have the luxury of letting the fruit hang out as long as California. Neither do most colder-climate winemakers want to make those types of wines.

Sweetness in small doses in red wine does serve an important purpose. In small amounts, in addition to serving as a foil against sharp acidity, it gives red wine silkiness and smoothness. But take sweetness just a notch too high, and the wine will often start to lose its identity. And that’s what we’re seeing in many reds.

When handled properly, sweetness doesn’t show. It’s part of the winemaker’s balancing act in getting the wine she or he wants.

The counterpoint to this is that you can also find a red wine that you swear is totally dry, only to discover that it has about 1 percent or more of residual sugar. I think that’s simply good winemaking, not deception.

Where increased sweetness in red wine is troubling is in wines from regions that have evolved an identifiable character that has become the reason we like that wine. But the level of sweetness changes that entirely.

There are some Chiantis from Italy in the Detroit market right now that are deeper in color, riper, and sweeter than they were in several of their previous vintages. I see the same thing in some lesser-level Bordeaux wines and in several Australian reds.

I hope this move won’t be permanent, because those same wines became known and revered for a specific character that was much drier than we are seeing at the moment.

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