Most people start their wine journeys with sweeter wines. Right?
There is plenty of research to support this idea. But as someone who didn’t start with sweet wines and who now thoroughly enjoys them, I find it irksome how often this information is repeated - and wonder to what extent perpetuating the association of sweeter wines with novice wine drinkers has affected our perception of the category.
TLDR: continuing to link sweet wines to novice wine drinks does a disservice to sweet wines, the wine industry, and wine appreciators.
It is useful to recap the levels of residual sugar (RS) measured in grams per litre (g/L) that define the categories for still wines (excluding Fortifieds):
- Dry = a maximum of 5 g/L
- Semi-dry = between 5 and 12 g/L
- Semi-sweet = between 5 and 30 g/L
- Sweet = more than 20 g/L
Note that sparkling wines differ as the perception of sweetness is affected by the effervescence (and cold); this is reflected with its own sweetness level category with RS levels being higher for the same sweetness labelling categories, I.e. dry sparklings have an RS between 15 and 35 g/L and sweet is defined as higher than 50 g/L.
Let’s take a look at the research and some of the statistics that I found surprising:
- The SAWIS 2021 report tells us that of the nearly 132 million litres of white wine consumed, roughly 81 million litres were semi-sweet or sweet. For reds, roughly 42 million of the 131 million litres were semi-sweet or sweet. A hefty 41 million litres of the total 46 million litres were semi-sweet or sweet. The pandemic was an anomaly in these years, but surely not one that would affect chosen styles (were we really tracking our enterprising bootlegging endeavours?). https://www.sawis.co.za/info/download/Book_2021.pdf
- South Africa’s growth in sweet wine consumption is in alignment with other countries. In a study using IRI sales data from January 2020 to March 2021, the US giants, E&J Gallo, found that sweet wine sales increased by 40.1%. Their study included still and sparkling wines, as well as Sangria and fruit flavoured wines. The study did not include semi-sweet, dessert and non-alcoholic wines. Of course, when the largest wine producer in the world is involved, one knows that high volumes of inexpensive wines are at play. We can assume the same for South Africa.
- In terms of consumer research, South Africa’s 2022 Great BIG Wine Survey Research Report includes a nifty summary of consumer preferences divided into 8 price points. A whopping 50% of consumers willing to spend R300 or more on a bottle of wine preferred sweet wines. I would not have guessed this? Nor would I have guessed that the preceding two price point blocks, covering R150 to R300, also preferred them to dry wines, though by a smaller margin. The 4 lower price-point blocks all preferred dry wines, including lowest price-point, at less than R40, having the closest preference margins of 37% dry over 36% sweet. (Almost more surprising is that 7 of the 8 groups chose Facebook as their preferred means of wine communication.). The report goes on to note that “New wine drinkers, as measured in the wine journey, prefer sweet wines.” with their preference for dry wines growing as they continue their journey. https://vintelligence.co.za/great-big-wine-survey/
And herewith my rant…
…it’s hard to accept these consumer survey conclusions when one doesn’t align with the summary that ‘most new wine drinkers prefer sweet wines’. Many of us did not start our wine journeys with sweeter wines. To which the inevitable response is: ‘did your family drink wine and were you exposed to good quality wines from a younger age?’ followed by ‘perhaps you started drinking wine later in life?’. In some cases the answer is yes, but for many of us the answer is no.
This got me wondering why some bypassed the sweet rite of passage. I asked my friends on Instagram*: A) whether they started their wine journeys with sweet wines and B) whether they still drink them.
62 people replied. 2 did not answer the questions. Of the remaining sixty:
- 34 people started with sweet wines - the majority, as seen in studies
- 20 of them continue to enjoy these wines.
- Only 3 people have always refrained from sweet wines.
- What was most interesting to me is that 22 of those who didn’t start on the saccharine side now drink these wines.
- A total of 42 out of 60 currently drink sweet wines. And herein the beauty of running unaudited social media surveys - the ability to spy on the participants. I can see what everyone posts. I know that 1 of those who didn’t post a conclusive reply enjoys a sweet tipple from time to time. Bringing the total to 43 out of 60.
I also asked our WhatsApp wine group but didn’t receive enough replies to warrant a conclusion. However, the few replies that I received were hilarious confessions. Love them or not, the four cousins have earned a place in our memories.
So why did nearly half of my friends not start with sweet wines?
For the same reason that half of my friends started with sweet wines.
- Evolution: Outside of the rarity of being born with a taste disorders such ageusia (can’t detect any tastes), hypogeusia (reduced detection of tastes) and dysgeusia (a distortion of taste), we can all taste sweetness. Science believes that this ability most likely stems from the need to better gauge bitterness (potentially indicates toxicity) and to judge the ripeness of a plant (more sugar, more glucose = more energy). Carnivorous animals that don’t consume plants don’t perceive sweetness. There’s also a theory that we developed dexterity in our hands in order to pick fruit.
- Genetics: 25% of the population are supertasters with a greater number of tastebuds compared to the 50% of us average tasters. Supertasters are more sensitive to the extremes, be they bitter, salty, sweet or sour. I’ve also reluctantly accepted that people don’t learn to love coriander when all they’re tasting is an overwhelming soapy flavour.
- Nurture: As a child, how often were you rewarded with a sweet substance to alleviate the pain of a scraped knee…or the many stubbed toes as my feet grew faster than my brain could comprehend? Suikerwater [sugar water] to calm your tears. We associate sweetness with pleasure.
- Culture and diet: If you’re unaccustomed to eating many sweet foods, sugar can be overwhelming. Having said that, it’s alarming how quickly one becomes re-addicted to sugar after successfully giving it up for a year.
- Health concerns: We understand that alcohol can be harmful and so we monitor our intake. We also know that we should limit our sugar intake…though, many of us will always have a not-so-hidden chocolate drawer. There are certainly sweet wines that require both higher alcohol and minimum sugar levels: the unctuous Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru wines from the Loire Valley require a minimum potential alcohol of 18% versus Sauternes with only 13%. Both can reach roughly 200g/L RS. Vin de Constance varies, but let’s round off to 165 g/L RS. Coke = 108ish g/L of sugar. Tonic water = 85 g/L of sugar in Schweppes. But how much dessert wine would you drink in a single sitting compared to the volume of tonic used to top up your gin?
- Fashion: trends change and, unfortunately, trends subtly filter down to some of us independent (stubborn?) souls who are no longer able to find a syrupy alcoholic treat by the glass on the menu or can’t nip out to the nearest wine store to pick up a half bottle of nectar to pair with a dessert course. Who decides what is currently trending?
Influence. The answer is influence.
Understanding the hierarchy of consumer behaviour is crucial to a product’s popularity.
- there would be no vision without the Innovators
- no momentum unless it catches the attention of the Early Adopters
- success (usually financial) is confirmed through the Early Majority and Late Majority
- with the Laggards bringing up the rear
Most of us join around the Early Majority and Late Majority stage. However, I have been known to be a denialist Laggard from time to time.
With each level of adoption, we all become influencers within our social circles. Avo on toast was just avocado on toast - until it was plated, garnished, photographed, and spread like wildfire across social media channels to become an overpriced staple on breakfast menus.
‘We like what we eat, rather than we eat what we like’
There’s a saying: ‘we like what we eat, rather than we eat what we like’. It is this environmental and social influence that is the key to answering all of my own questions. For me, oysters were not love at first bite - left in isolation, I would have stopped at the first shell. Hence, when you’re at a table surrounded by people extolling the virtues of traditional method sparkling wines, you’re more likely to try to adopt the same preferences (or stubbornly refuse 🙂). I think it ties into empathy and curiosity - and inherent interest in wanting to understand why our fellow humans enjoy something. Making nom nom sounds works on babies and pets, so why not adults too.
I believe that influence is the strongest reason behind our preferences. We consume what our peers consume.
Which makes those seemingly patronising follow up questions about being raised around good wine or discovering wine at a later age valid. The younger you are, the more likely you’ll be persuaded by those around you with more experienced palates. My love affair with Tassies was influenced by fellow student friends who had, no doubt, grown up with parents who enjoyed red wines that we could not possibly afford on a student budget. I’m certain that the same applied to other student groups where parents preferred fortified and late harvest wines.
Is influence a good thing?
It was pleasing to see that the majority of my Insta friends currently consume these decadent treats. 15 of them went on to specify the style of sweet wine that they now consume. I hadn’t asked for this information. Was it enthusiasm (probably) or the need to clarify the quality that they now consume (also likely)?
As one finds oneself reading and listening to topics about wine, as well as absorbing how people react to certain wine styles/brands/regions - one notices an underlying snobbery surrounding inexpensive and high-volume production wines, alongside the constant reinforcement that those new to wine drink sweet wines. It’s hidden in polite phrasing and markedly different levels of enthusiasm in reviews. It comes across in Instagram polls where no-one was asked to specify which wines they consume, but many felt the need to clarify certain styles that inevitably imply a quality level.
Browsing the interwebs, there are many outdated web pages linking beginners to sweet wines. Thankfully, counteracted by many more articles listing the best ‘serious’ sweet wines, or sweet ‘but sophisticated’ wines. All of which focus on making a distinction between the inexpensive lower quality and the most desirable collectible wines.
These articles sing the praises of the tiny volumes made from grapes left to hang for longer on the vines - be that through drying on the vine, late harvest, freezing the grapes on the vine through the cold winter, or grapes infected by noble rot. All of which are methods used to concentrate the flavours and sugars in the grapes. There’s also the option of halting the fermentation by adding grape spirits to kill the yeast and retain the desired level of RS in the final wine. The critics and sommeliers can’t get enough of these styles. They’re a little less enthusiastic when the fermentation is halted by chilling the wine and filtering out the yeasts when it reaches its desired sweetness level. Moscato d’Asti might be the obvious exception.
One can’t help but admire the extra effort and time required to produce these extraordinary wines. Chilling and filtering are mechanical processes that require less intensive resources - perhaps the reason for them being less venerated? Ultimately, the best sweet wines have flavour intensity and vibrant acidity that balances their luscious sweetness and sometimes lower alcohol. These qualities can be found at a range of price points dictated by the viticulture, winemaking and ageing processes, volumes produced, and brand dominance. As much as inexpensive wines are flippantly dismissed, for most, seeing Sauternes on a label is enough to impress - yet one could currently spend anywhere between R340 to R7300 and receive similar pleased reactions to spotting the name of this legendary region on the table.
How does one know which influencer to trust?
By learning to trust yourself! One of the most profound moments in my wine journey was learning about BLIC - balance, length, intensity and complexity. It’s not the be all and end all of assessing the quality of the wine, but it is a solid starting point. The most eye opening example of BLIC in action was a bottom-shelf beauty that ticked every one of the BLIC boxes (sweetness wonderfully balanced by acidity, we gave up counting down how long the flavours were sustained, both the nose and palate packed a serious punch i.e. intensity, and an array of dried fruits, nuts and dessert-like aromas and flavours delighted us). Late harvested, mostly Chenin Blanc, fermentation halted by the winery, and priced at around R60 - the drab brown on brown tones in a brown 750ml bottle don’t promise much, but it is very good…and is a regular on my shelf.
Why don’t we drink more sweet wines?
Or, more accurately, why do people say that they don’t drink sweet wines. Some don’t because of personal taste. However, I have many friends who have made absolute statements…only to change their tune for the ‘exception’ that I hand to them. FYI. throw in an eye watering price tag, make mention of its rarity in South Africa, speak to the tiny production volumes, or pair it with a selection of cheeses (that some also claimed to not eat) or a decadent dessert, and every last one of these wines become an ‘exception’.
It’s not about taste preferences or genetics when the same friends are scoffing mediocre, mass-made malva pudding (not everyone has your family recipe passed down from generation to generation - I believe you when you tell me that your great grandmother’s malva is delicious!). And when served with pre-packaged custard or ice cream, health is not a factor.
Which leaves us with fashion/trends/influence. It’s because it’s not fashionable to admit to drinking sweet wines…without defining the styles that are preferable.
We all drink our coffee differently, in different quantities and at different times of the day. Many of us do drink sweet wines in their differing styles, in varying quantities and often only on rare occasions.
- 'But modern life doesn’t allow for many indulgent multi-course lunches and dinner'. To which I say 'everyone has time for a cheese and charcuterie platter...and one glass of delectable intense nectar will often suffice'. Good thing that these wines are usually packaged in 375ml bottles.
- 'But when will I find the time to drink these wines?'. Isn’t it handy that the RS and higher acidity help protect the wine, allowing them to hang out on your shelf until you or your adult grandchild find the perfect moment to open the bottle.
There’s no excuse not to drink sweet wines.
And there’s no excuse to continue the broad misnomer that beginners start with sweet wines before graduating to drier and more sophisticated styles. This does a disservice to the beautifully balanced, sometimes eye-wateringly expensive, but mostly reasonably priced 375ml bottles that are able to transcend generations.
The ugly truth is that some of the wine industry take these survey takeaway phrases to heart. This can equate to discriminating along colour lines. It is well documented that in the US, black females have been at the mercy of these throw-away phrases. In South Africa its prejudiced head pops up regularly at tasting events where certain wines are poured for certain people. It shows up at Cape Wine where the winery's representative has time to 'warn' me that the wine isn't sweet (wearing an expression that tells me more that the words that are being said), yet doesn't have the time to provide an overview of the winemaking processes. It appears, time and again, in the disappointing wine tasting experiences from my friends who look like me.
I fear that many of us, as inevitable influencers, have taken the filtered message that sweet wine is for novices and run with it - abbreviating ‘most’ to ‘only’ novices drink sweet wines and, at times, perverting the opposite into being true - that knowledgeable wine drinkers don’t drink sweet wines.
Even if the myth is somewhat true, the growth in this category could indicate a growth in new wine consumers. And whether you’re a fan of decadent dessert wines or not, we can all agree that choosing to drink wine is a win for the wine industry. Surely, changing the narrative to embrace those with a sweeter tooth helps graduate them to higher quality sweet wines…and a way to preserve the production, consumption and appreciation of some of the greatest wines in the world.
- In the interest of full disclosure, though, nobody would include middle childhood years as part of a consumer wine study: I was 9 years old when I first tasted wine - a quarter glass of deliciously sweet Muscat from the Franschhoek Valley. I vividly remember this illicit treat. Perhaps this rant was for nought as, technically, I did start with sweet wine!
*Note: I chose not to specify the level of sweetness in my informal Instagram survey - most people understood this to include Medium Dry through to Fully Sweet and exclude the lower ranges of Off Dry. Many included Port as one of a few examples of sweeter wines that they now consume - good news for the fortified category. A few indicated ‘ish’ - I’ve counted these as yesses.