Residual Sugar Roulette

Wine — By KF Louis on January 26, 2010 at 12:59 pm

In the United States, the law states it’s optional for white wine producers to list the percentage of residual sugar on their wine labels.

Regardless of the law, I think it’s crazy for U.S. and international producers not to do this voluntarily.  By not doing so, they force unknowing customers into a game of “Residual Sugar Roulette,” which producers and marketers will certainly lose.  And the loss comes in the form of customers being surprised by what they find in the bottle — especially when it comes to varietals such as riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc and chenin blanc.

I realize that residual sugar is not the be-all-end-all measurement of how sweet a wine will taste on the palate.  There are other factors that determine the overall sensation of sweetness.  But we’ve got to start somewhere.  I can’t tell you how many times my readers tell me in a given year that they don’t like German riesling because it’s sweet, or pinot gris because it’s dry.  I rarely even bother trying to explain the varying categories of sweetness (Kabinett vs. Auslese, etc.) for a particular region.  And that the sugar levels can vary greatly per producer and vintage.  That’s just too confusing.

What I tell them instead is:  “It’s complicated and it depends.  The quickest path is to find a trusted wine retailer who knows the producers and has tasted the wine.  Only then will be able to quickly assess what the sugar level is.”

What  I would rather tell them is that there is always a measurement of residual sugar on the wine label right next to the percentage of alcohol by volume that will at least put that wine in the right ballpark.

When I was in New Zealand last year, I visited Peregrine, which listed the grams of residual sugar per volume on its list of white wines.  Within minutes, I watched a novice wine drinker in the tasting room next to me learn what the difference between 1, 4 and 7 grams, and what it meant to her.  She said:  “I’ve never been able to understand sugar in wine.  But now this makes total sense.  I don’t like any wines over 4 grams!”

Having witnessed this scenario with my own eyes, I realize that white wine producers and marketers need to make a change on disclosing residual sugar.  And while they’re at it, why not also list the varietals on the labels as well?  (Yes, I’m talking to you, Italy and France.)

I still dream of a day where wine buyers can pick up any bottle of wine – without expert assistance – and see enough information on the label to decide whether or not the wine is right for them.

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