A Drier (But Not Dry) January

Noticed your wine has been a little sweeter of late? The increasing SUGAR CONTENT in certain wines is a cause for concern, writes MARY DOWEY, but an occasional glass of DRY RED OR WHITE can brighten an otherwise dull month … 


January on the dry? Not for me, I’m afraid. The dullest month would be dismal without an occasional glass of wine. But, given the annual new year bombardment of healthy living exhortations, it will be a small glass of white or red with dinner. Dry – probably bone-dry.

Nothing startling there, I hear you say. Apart from dessert wines and a handful of off-dry specialities, aren’t most whites and reds dry? Not exactly. Less and less, in fact. The most disconcerting trend I noticed at tastings hosted by the main supermarket groups in 2016 was the creeping advance of sugar.

Heaps of wines from all over the world tasted slightly sweet, even though they represented styles that the world expects to be dry. Winemakers can manipulate sweetness levels both in the vineyard (leaving grapes to ripen longer) and in the winery, where unfermented or “residual” sugar may remain in a wine after fermentation has stopped. Signs are that many are on a sugar rush.

Why? Out of necessity, occasionally: some grapes are so high in acidity that they need sugar to balance their natural tartness. A much more common reason is the one that prompts food scientists to put sugar into ready-prepared meals. Consumers have a sweeter tooth than they realise – or admit to. That same tooth has helped to drive massive trends in wine. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, frequently off-dry (though never so described), is one of the most popular styles of all time. Australian and Chilean reds with the luscious berry flavours that come from ultra-ripe, warm-climate grapes have also been such a huge hit that they have become a template for winemakers across the globe to follow.

But the stealth march towards sweetness that has begun to intensify across supermarket wine shelves isn’t driven solely by consumer demand. Increasingly, sugar is being used to mask the rough edges of wines that would otherwise be unpalatable. It can make them taste fruitier, smoother, plumper, less astringent. This is especially useful at the cheap end of the market where winemakers often have to work with sub-standard grapes. That extra touch of sweetness is a handy touch-up agent – a bit like wood filler in a half-rotten door.

And, like all the best touch-up agents, it’s virtually invisible. You won’t see it mentioned on back labels; even wine writers struggle to pin down details, Marks & Spencer being the only supermarket group in Ireland to provide the press with information on residual sugar as a matter of routine.

This lick of extra sweetness probably isn’t significant enough to constitute a health risk but I’m wary of it for other reasons. It can make wines less refreshing, less savoury, tiresome after half a glass. How can we avoid it? Easier said than done, but inexpensive wines aimed at the mass market are the biggest culprits. Make this the year when you pay more – and, during virtuous January at least, drink less.

Three of the best 

Louis Latour Ardèche Chardonnay 2014. Well-known Burgundy house Latour maintains a taut, refreshing style even when working in the warm south. Best with food, this versatile white will develop buttery richness with age. Alcohol 13%. From O’Briens outlets; Higgins, Dublin 14; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow; Wine Centre, Kilkenny; Ardkeen, Waterford; Joyce’s supermarkets, Co Galway, usually €16.95-17.95 but on promotion at €14 until mid-January.

 Carlos Lucas Jardim da Estrela Dão 2015. Although some Dão reds can be austerely dry, this one from an enterprising new venture drapes smooth, rich red berry flavours around a grippy core. Made for meat. Alcohol 13.5%. From Grapevine, Dublin 7; Power & Co, Lucan, Co Dublin; Browns, Portlaoise, Co Laois; O’Learys, Cootehill, Co Cavan; J J O’Driscoll, Ballinlough, Co Roscommon; quintessentialwines.ie, about €13.50.

Ascheri Nebbiolo San Giacomo, Langhe 2013. I love Nebbiolo, the red grape responsible for Piedmont’s famous Barolos and Barbarescos, for its savoury firmness. With hints of red fruits, herbs and spice, this modern, juicy Langhe version would make a feast out of sausages and red cabbage. Alcohol 14%. From O’Briens nationwide, €21.95.

Mary Dowey @MaryDowey

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