Monday, July 07, 2008

Sweet Wine

Sweet wine, hay making, sunshine day breaking.
We can wait till tomorrow.
Car speed, road calling, bird freed, leaf falling.
We can bide time.
-Cream

When I talk to new people about wine, I'll usually hear "I don't like dry wines. I like them sweeter," at least once. The gender mix is irrelevant. I've found as many men as women out there who prefer sweet wine -- they just don't generally admit it in public. Chances are, many of these folks got smacked in the face with a big-ass cabernet when they first started drinking wine. (Or at least after they'd moved past Boone's.) Since we tend to return to that we find pleasant, and most folks have at least one positive sweet wine experience, "Sweet is better" often plays pretty well.

I'm not here to dislodge that idea from anyone's mind.

As we've covered before, when yeast is added to wine, the yeast eats sugar, farts carbon dioxide, and pees alcohol. If a winemaker wants to make a wine sweeter, he or she will add something to the wine to stop the fermentation before it's complete, leaving some "residual sugar" in the wine. Many wines leave at least a little residual sugar to improve the taste. Also, a lot of mass-produced wines do so as well, since a little sugar can cover a lot of shoddy winemaking.

I go through phases where I prefer sweeter wine. They aren't long phases, mind you, but I certainly can relate to enjoying that sugar from time to time. I also checked my archives and realized that I hadn't written about Riesling in awhile. Since Riesling is probably the best known "sweet" wine, without further ado, I decided to compare American and German Riesling:

I started with Pacific Rim 2006 Columbia Valley Sweet Riesling -- Pacific Rim is one of the many faces of Bonny Doon winery. Bonny Doon has long been a favorite in Vine land. Their Dry Riesling is one of my standard go-to bottles if I'm having sushi or almost any kind of spicy Asian food. "Sweet Riesling" isn't normally a term you'll see on a wine's label, so when I saw this offered by Pacific Rim, I decided to give it a go. I set this up as a side-by-side with the Selbach 2005 Riesling Kabinett, a German Riesling I know to be sweet and basically at the same price point. (Around $10 for either bottle.)

At first taste, the Pacific Rim is a much more straightforward wine. This is a very low alcohol wine -- only about 9%. The nose is peachy and light. The flavor is very fruity and, as promised, quite sweet. Peaches and pineapples are the dominant flavors. The finish is a little sugary and not as crisp as I generally prefer in a Riesling. Compared to both their Dry Riesling and the Selbach, it's not as good as either.

The Selbach was more interesting. The nose was also very light, but the first taste had a lot more going on. Like many German Rieslings, there was a mineral undertone to the sweetness and fruit, giving a flavor I find appealing. The main flavors centered much more on apple and pear. The finish was crisper, again largely because of the minerality.

We also tried both of these wines with a spicy stir fry that we put together. With the food, the Selbach outperformed the Pacific Rim as well. The minerality cut through the spices much more effectively.

However, one should certainly not turn away from the Pacific Northwest if you're looking for a good choice among Rieslings. Not long ago, I had the chance to try Charles Smith "Kung Fu Girl" 2006 Washington State Riesling. As Charles himself puts it, "WHY? BECAUSE, RIESLING AND GIRLS KICK ASS!" and I wholeheartedly agree on both counts, although the caps are his. Charles brings rock and roll panache to his winemaking, and this particular Riesling brings the house down.

This Riesling is on the sweeter side, but takes off in a number of directions. The minerality of this wine reminds me of an Austrian or German Riesling, but there's more complex fruit as well. Mango, pear, some citrus -- you can find something different with each sip. The finish is slightly sweet and nicely crisp. I first had this at a wine tasting with a number of friends whose palates ranged from "only sweet wines" to "sweet wines really bite." The table was unanimous in praise for this wine. At around $13, it's an absolute steal -- and with a name and bottle design like this one has, it's a perfect wine to bring to a summer party, regardless of the flavor preferences of the gathering.

If you're looking for something sweeter, you're probably better off looking down the German aisle if you're trying to find something in the $8-10 range. For a few dollars more, you'll find some wonderful domestic offerings from places like New York’s Finger Lakes region and the Pacific Northwest -- but, in my experience, the U.S. hasn't gotten the hang of inexpensive, sweet, and high quality just yet.



4 comments:

Taylor said...

I'm a musician and I've got beers and liquors lined up for all kinds post-show enjoyment and jamming with friends environments (i.e. couple shots JD and Jager when I play a metal gig, rest of the bottle after, Smitty's and Irish Car Bombs for playing Irish Reels at a pub, or having a really nice brandy after performing an opera).

So what could I substitute for those atmospheres?

When my best friends and I are buy wine we tend to grab the first thing we see at the grocery store and then use it for a screaming-attopoflungs-singalong sort of deal and the wine isn't great. Occasionally, we get lucky and my brother comes over with amazing wine.

And no by no means am I looking for an "equivalent" to beer. Just something along the same intensity/atmosphere lines.

Mike said...

One word: Zinfandel.

No, not the pansy-ass pink stuff that's only worthwhile if you feel like making sangria. No...real Zinfandel, especially from California. While this wine's been made there for years, there have been a number of growers who, for awhile, had an arms race on just how much alcohol one could put in wine. Most California Zins, even the cheap ones, will run you about 14% or more alcohol.

To add to the fun, Zins are relatively lower in tannin and much fruitier than cabernets, so they're easier to pass around a jam and just drink. There are a number of them out there that are pretty cheap (especially in the 1.5 liter variety) and still decent.

Give it a go and let me know how y'all hold up. And then send me the demo.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mike...

I have a suggestion for 2 other inexpensive Rieslings that we have found. My husband ONLY drinks Riesling (he's still a fairly beginner wine drinker), so we've experimented. He absolutely loves Covey Run, and I recently found that Robert Mondavi, Reserve Selection also makes a Riesling. Both are fairly inexpensive, and tasty.

Joe Roberts, CSW said...

Kung Fu Girl has got to be the greatest name for a wine I've ever heard...!