My Palate Press article for July asks whether wine is becoming sweeter, and why. It may seem a stupid question. Of course wine is becoming sweeter. Ask everyone who’s been talking about Meiomi for the past week. But there’s a problem. Sweet wine has always been praised as a good things. Ask the Greeks, or the Romans, or John Locke. Now, their definition of “sweet” and ours might not be the same, and no one’s going to pull out a bottle they’ve been saving from Aristotle’s wine cellar to prove the case one way or the other, but we know that sweet wine isn’t just the new tipple of the undereducated. Syrupy Tokaji isn’t called the wine of kings for nothing.
It earned that name, though, because it was rare, precious, and frightfully expensive, not just because it’s delicious. No question that the various, dubious miracles of modern technology make it possible for everyday wine to be sweeter than ever. Excellent filtration systems keep bugs from lapping up extra sugar and spoiling wines with residual sugar after bottling. A lot of wine without residual sugar tastes sweeter because of riper fruit flavors and higher alcohol (alcohol tastes sweet), thanks to the fashionability of extra “hang time,” warmer climates, and all manner of viticultural improvements. The modern palate has come to expect (and demand, it seems) those flavors in unprecedented ways.
Apothic Red and your average popular Napa cabernet both taste sweet. So, is there a difference? Simon Woolf, who always has something intelligent to say, pointed out in a comment on that Palate Press piece that I could just have easily argued that wine is becoming blander, rather than sweeter, and that the palate of the average consumer has been dumbed down. Are Apothic Red and your average modernly-sweet dry red wine part of the same trend, or do they represent different ones?
Simon calls them different, but I’d say that they’re the same idea taken to different degrees. Mass-market wines, whether $8 grocery store blends, or $22 California pinots, or $60 Napa cabs, are made to sell; sweet sells because it takes so little effort to appreciate, and because it suits the modern ketchup palate. Having more money to spend doesn’t always mean having spent more of it developing your palate.
The counter-argument says super-ripe cabs are a phenomenon of winemakers/growers playing with their new toys. We can make riper wines, so we will make riper wines because they’re new, and novel, and maybe because they demonstrate New World prowess at ripening and our God-given superiority over the French and their inconsistent vintages. Cheap sweet wines, on the other hand, are just pandering to the soda-swilling public, plus covering up for grapes that have nothing else to offer flavor-wise.
The original winemaking motivation behind Apothic and modern cab might be different, though I’d expect that anyone who made high-quality overripe reds for the novelty has gotten bored and moved to something more interesting. The reason why they stick, though? The same. Over-hybridized year-round picked-to-ship grocery store produce, packaged products engineered with sugar and salt for maximum acceptance with minimum effort, and refrigerators (less call for fermented foods, and less spoilage, frankly) haven’t dumbed down everyone’s palates. If you’re an American, you’re more likely to prefer molecular gastronomy to McDonalds if you’re well-off, it’s true. But then you’re also not the person buying sweet-ripe Napa cabs; you’re pouring Assyrtiko with that kimchi (because let’s be honest; you’re eating kimchi, and half the folk eating molecular are only doing it because it’s trendy). Apothic, Meiomi, and high-end fruit bombs are all doing the same thing for people whose palates have more in common than their pocketbooks. Why is Meiomi, a flagrantly sweet red wine, doing so well at $22? Because a lot of ketchup palates have found mid-range PR jobs at dot-coms and the like and don’t want to take $12 bottles to a party. And because our idiotic drinking laws and backward wine-consuming culture meant they never learned about all of the other interesting flavors in wine growing up, but that is a handful of different questions for another day.