The Wine Nerd: Too Sweet, or Not Too Sweet?

Jim Hollingshead

For perhaps the hundredth time in as many days, I was told this weekend by a guest that they wouldn’t like a Rosé because it would be too sweet.  While I greatly enjoyed the look of pleased astonishment on his face when he finally tried it(causing that look to appear on someone is one of life’s greatest pleasures), I must admit that for a moment I felt weary and worn from fielding that same objection each day.  For an unknown reason, my mind jumped to the first Rosé that I ever fell in love with, and that unblemished shock that I felt upon discovering this new form of magic.  The raw emotion of discovery, the innocent awe at a vision never before beheld, is worth the time spent in ignorance.  Fortunately, this applies to more wines than just Rosé, so to recreate that emotional high, I recommend searching out these not-so-sweet masterpieces…


It seems that the reign of the dreaded White Zin has left most Americans with the impression that to be pink is to be sugary juice.  As was the new friend I made this weekend, you will be happy to hear that most Rosé is actually quite dry, often even tart.  The most well known dry hero is Provance, in good old France, though many other French Rosés perform equally well.  Want to keep a hint of sweetness?  Try Tavel, the dark pink Frenchman with the booziness of a Californian red.  Shall we search for mouth-puckering tartness?  Rosé Txakoli is for you.  This Spanish vixen will leave you rather tongue-tied.  Think Americans only make it sweet?  Heh, you’re in the middle of Virginia, with a dry Rosé in every direction.  Come try Early Mountain or King Family’s Crosé before I drink them all!


The king of dessert wines, the noble Sauternes is a heavy late-harvest monster white from Bordeaux, France.  It is over-ripened, and infected with a Noble Rot that dehydrates the grapes further, making a rich, viscous juice that makes a wine more akin to honey than a White Bordeaux.  Most famous of all is Chateau d’Yquem(pronounced “di-kem”), a golden elixir smoother than velvet.  While d’Yquem(like few others) has a dry ‘Y’ cuvee, you’ll still shell out $250+ for a half-bottle.  My favorite?  Chateau Guiraud.  Living in d’Yquem’s shadow, this is the only other highest-ranked Chateau in all of Sauternes, and it makes the single greatest dessert wine that I’ve ever known.  The hint of sweetness is balanced by nuts, dried fruits, and a hint of tapioca.  I have a bottle on my shelf, and I’m looking for an excuse to open it.


Here we’re stepping back in time, to the origin of dessert wine.  The Americans stole the idea from the French and the Italians, and the French and the Italians stole it from the Hungarians.  And the Hungarians made it by accident, when a war with the Turks forced them to harvest their wines late, after the Noble Rot had set in.  Surely here, in the birthplace of dessert wine, you can count on some sweetness in your glass?  Yet even Tokaji(pronounced To-keye) has their lovely dry Furmint, which I am enjoying right now.  Herbal and almost floral, it is as clean and refreshing as a cool day in the midst of summer.


At last we reach the giant.  Port is high-alcohol, high-sugar, well-aged red that will knock your socks off.  Yet even this has a drier side.  Try for the oldest Tawney you can get your hands on- the extra ageing turns the color from ruby red to lean brown, and cleans much of the sugar from the mighty wine.  Aromas of dried fruits and flavors of nuts will dominate, and the addition of a cigar or blue cheeses will only exaggerate them.  In order to jump entirely down the rabbit hole, you should try a White Port, clean yet still rich, light but still powerful.

I often forget that moment of discovery, when I first loved a Rosé.  Each time I remember, a hint of that shock and awe trickles back into my soul.  Each time you taste a wine that surprises you, that gives you an experience unlike any that you’ve had thus far, it brands a memory that can be as powerful as your first kiss, or the greatest meal that you ever cooked.  It is not sad that so many assume certain inaccurate things about a wine.  Rather, it is sad to be disheartened by that fact.  That moment of discovery can be one of such raw excitement that it is more than worth the previous years of aversion.  It is perhaps the greatest gift that wine can give to us.  I, and each of us lovers of wine, are blessed to have a passion that we will never completely master, because there is always another wine simply waiting to surprise us.