There’s a new category of wine that is growing fast and strong: sweet “dry” red wines.
I’m not talking about full-on sweet wines, such as red muscadine. I’m talking about wines that are just a bit sweet, that don’t call themselves sweet, that essentially pose as dry wines for people who think they like dry red wines.
It’s kind of a dirty secret that many wine drinkers “talk dry but drink sweet,” presumably to avoid the scorn of wine snobs who think that a serious red wine should be dry.
There have always been wines to accommodate this category — think blush and white zinfandel. But they mostly have been white or rose wines, and everyone knows they are sweet. Now there’s a whole slew of wines that appear to be dry — but they contain a fair amount of residual sugar.
This is not limited to red wines. Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, for example, has been getting a little sugar boost for years, and its style has been widely copied. If you’ve tasted an exceptionally fruity pinot grigio lately, there’s a good chance it has residual sugar.
But the trend in reds is more recent. And it’s stranger, simply because people are not expecting these wines to be sweet.
Leading this category are such brands as Apothic Red, Menage a Trois Red and Cupcake Red Velvet.
Residual sugar is the quantity that remains unfermented in wine. Yeast in wine generally eats the sugar during fermentation. A winemaker, though, can stop the fermentation to keep some of those sugars. And there are invariably some sugars that are not easily fermented by wine yeast, so they remain after fermentation.
Winemakers also sometimes — when laws allow — add sugar, or sweet grape-juice concentrate, to make the wine palatable or commercially acceptable.
Many dry wines contain a little residual sugar. A wine that has up to 4 grams of sugar in a liter, or 0.4 percent, is generally considered dry. Many people don’t perceive such a wine as sweet, though perceived sweetness and actual sugar content are different; the former depends on a wine’s acidity and other factors.
Apothic Red, though, has more than 16 g/l. Menage a Trois and Cupcake Red Velvet red blends aren’t far behind at 12 g/l each. Some wineries don’t admit to it. They aren’t required to put residual sugar levels on labels, and they often don’t publish it elsewhere.
These are wines made in the New World style, and they are often made in the United States or Australia. Most are blends that cost between $8 and $15. In other words, they are not premium wines.
The stereotypical wine snob tends to dismiss these wines. One wine sales representative, who asked not to be named, said, “I don’t carry these wines. We’re not interested in selling candy.”
But such salespeople are missing sales. “It’s kind of rampant in the market right now,” said Chuck King, who sells wine for American Premium Beverage, a large distributor in the Triad. “Cupcake Red Velvet is our No. 1 selling wine.”
A few years ago, Americans developed a taste for what are called “fruit bombs,” wines with lots of ripe fruit flavors. King said that the interest in slightly sweet wines may well be a consequence of this appetite for fruity wine, because sugar tends to boost fruit flavors.
“California really has gotten into the big, big flavors,” King said. “Even in some big-name cabernets, they go for more fruit flavors and they are trying to steer away from harsh tannins,” which sweetness can tone down.
King also sells the popular Meiomi Pinot Noir. This red is unusually “fat and juicy,” if not exactly sweet, for a pinot noir, said John Hughes, who carries it at Wine Merchants Gourmet.
Meiomi is Wine Merchant’s top-seller. King calls it “the train that can’t be stopped,” because demand for it is so high.
Part of the success of this trend seems to be that it draws simultaneously from several key demographics. Some say these wines appeal to women. Others say the market is Millennials (people in their 20s and 30s) who grew up drinking Coke for breakfast. Others, including Hughes, say it appeals to beginning wine drinkers.
“Residually sweet wine is a good way to get people to start drinking wine,” Hughes said. “Later, they’ll move on to dry wine. Or maybe they won’t.”
Such wines as Apothic Red, some say, really are just the next beginners’ wine to replace white zinfandel or moscato.
Of course, some of the world’s greatest wines are sweet, such as French sauterne or most German riesling. But this new breed of sweetish reds consists of generally cheap, nonpremium wine. Perhaps more important, these wines are not marketed as sweet, and consumers don’t treat them as sweet, or even notice that they are sweet.
Hughes and King pointed out that these slightly sweet wines don’t go well with many foods. That’s particularly true of steak, pizza and burgers, which are traditionally paired with dry red wines.
“But everyone has different tastes,” Hughes said. “Residually sweet wines are comfort wines, like comfort food.
“I don’t have anyone coming into Wine Merchants asking for residually sweet red wine. When they taste it, the customer doesn’t think it is sweet. They just think it tastes good.”