Sweet wines and snobby attitudes

Thursday, 10 October, 2013
Cathy Marston
Nothing sinks the heart of a wine journalist quicker than a delivery of semi-sweet wine samples to review.
Perhaps I’m wrong in saying that and there are scribes out there somewhere who relish the sugary whites and candy-floss roses that turn up from time to time, but I definitely know of several writers who refuse to accept such wines or refuse to taste and write about them if they are sent. I recently went away for 10 days and was (I must confess) more than a little un-thrilled to find 4 sweet roses, 3 off-dry-whites, 2 low-alcohol and 1 entirely alcohol-free, sweet, fizzy pink (how many boxes do we need to tick here?) wine all waiting my tastebuds and opinions on my return.

Why are we wine hacks so negative about sweet/semi-sweet/off-dry wines? I’ve been trying to think about that and have come up with a few reasons  (You’ll notice, by the way, that I am including myself in the sweeping damnations below – how could I not after the first paragraph?):

1.    Wine journalists are an ungrateful, snobby set of whingers totally out of touch with what the vast majority of the drinking public buys and enjoys.
2.    A line-up of Moscatos, semi-sweet rosés and off-dry whites doesn’t make for an impressive Instagram pic, where only Grand Cru Burgundy, Super Tuscans and aged Bordeaux will cut it in the willy-waving contest that is Social Media (“My bottle’s better than yours”).
3.    The hack can’t quite remember when he or she last drank these sort of wines but is fairly sure the occasion involved a pair of fishnet stockings, a small brown marmoset and a broom cupboard. Varsity days. Gotta love ‘em.
4.    Er, that’s kind of it really.

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that people who drink a lot of wine, particularly for their jobs, grow out of the wines they first learnt to enjoy. It’s the same with food, with most of us graduating from fishfingers and mac ‘n’ cheese onto slightly more sophisticated tastes and flavours, but whereas still liking these comforting dishes of childhood is considered a little retro and quite cool, it seems that the only feeling wine fundis have towards their ‘starting out’ wines is abhorrence and embarrassment.  

This attitude – my attitude - seriously needs to change. I’m not saying that I will necessarily choose to drink semi-sweet/off-dry wines, but I think I – we – need to be constantly mindful that if people DON’T drink them, the chances of them eventually drinking our beloved crisp, bone-dry Rieslings, peachy, aromatic Viogniers and richly-rewarding, robust red blends is extremely remote. Encouraging more people to drink semi-sweet/off-dry wines makes sound business sense from lots of points of view. Firstly, it’s the best way to expand the base of new wine-drinkers here in South Africa. Secondly the trend world-wide is towards sweeter, lower alcohol styles and we have plenty of Hanepoot and Muscadel just itching to be made into these types of wines and thirdly, we’re actually very good at them as well (Having tasted on the Best Value Wine Guide 2014 Rosé tasting panel recently -something for which I confess at the time, I was not enthusiastic – I know that there are a lot of wines out there which balance a pleasantly-sweet fruitiness with a refreshing acidity).

All this being so, we need to get over ourselves and start to celebrate the sweeter side of life. Summer is here, there is plenty of opportunity to entice people away from beer and spirit coolers and encourage them to explore wine cocktails, wine poured over crushed ice and frothy, fizzy little sweetie darlings. But none of these will mean diddly-squat in terms of turning people onto wine if they come with a side helping of smug, patronising attitude and a superior, snobby sneer.

What are your thoughts on sweet wine?