HEMET — It's been said before: Americans talk dry but drink sweet.
The phrase refers to the fact that American wine consumers say they like dry wines, but in reality they seem to love wines that have residual sugar. It's apparent from the sales over the years of the most popular fad wines, which have included the fruit-based wines of the 1960s such as Bali Hai, the fruit-based sangrias of the 1970s and wine coolers that today are made with flavors such as peach and cherry.
It is also apparent from the popularity of Chardonnays that are made with slight amounts of residual sugar. Such wines have routinely won gold medals and plaudits from some wine experts, even though the wines are often not well balanced and can be so sweet as to taste cloying.
The controversy about "dry" wines that are sweet has been raging for some years and it popped up again at the Farmers' Fair of Riverside County wine competition two weeks ago when sparks flew on at least two panels. Some judges took issue with other judges about whether sweeter Chardonnays and other supposedly dry wines deserved gold medals.
'Non-Classical' Style Wines
One panel member said no Chardonnay that was perceptibly sweet should get a gold medal. He said such Chardonnays don't age well and he felt that by honoring them with a top award the panel would be giving its imprimatur to a "non-classical" style of wine.
Yet one panel member defended off-dry Chardonnays, arguing that if the public liked them, what's wrong with rewarding them?
There is a body of thought that says sweetness in Chardonnay is an absolute no-no, that any Chardonnay that has any sugar at all (above the sugar found in trace amounts that aren't fermentable) is an abomination.
I don't buy that rigid belief. I happen to like a number of sweeter-styled Chardonnays, including those from DeLoach in Sonoma County, which over the years have won a flock of gold medals. But purists within the industry decry the DeLoach style of leaving about a half percent of residual sugar in the wine.
The purists also take to task such other producers of classic Chardonnay as Chateau St. Jean and Kendall-Jackson for leaving some residual sugar in their Chardonnays regularly. I recently tasted the 1978, 1979 and 1980 St. Jean Chardonnays from the famed Robert Young Vineyard and found them to be sweeter than expected--and I found the wines to be fading in quality. All were disappointing.
The subject of sweeter Chardonnays came up earlier this year at a conference of wine competition directors held in conjunction with the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition. Every director of a competition said there should be a definition of what constitutes a dry wine.
Setting a Standard Level of Sugar
Bob Thompson, wine author and columnist, asked to coordinate the meeting, collected directors' concerns. Of the sweet Chardonnay issue he said, "Everyone now feels the fairs should set a standard level of sugar within classes." But even Thompson, a veteran taster, asked the rhetorical question, "What's so bad about sweeter Chardonnays?"
He said it is felt--but no proof exists for the argument--that Chardonnays with residual sugars of as little as 0.5% hurt a wine as it ages. It is believed that over time the sugar becomes more noticeable, making the wine taste flabby and uninteresting.
He said, however, that he has no scientific evidence for this feeling, though he is conducting a number of (admittedly unscientific) experiments on the issue.
One concern that wine lovers should have is whether the style of a wine will match a particular food. For example, when Thompson poured four Chardonnays blind at a dinner of herbed chicken, a Freemark Abbey Chardonnay (bone dry) tasted best, with a sweeter Chardonnay coming in last. But on another occasion, when the same game was played with lobster as the main course, a DeLoach Chardonnay was first and the Freemark Abbey Chardonnay last.
So hot a topic is sweet Chardonnay that the Orange County Fair, which concluded its 1988 judging earlier this week, had on premises Pat Heck of Scott Laboratories to do sugar tests on Chardonnays. Moreover, the board of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair wine competition is discussing the problem.
"The judges on my Chardonnay panels were all talking about it (sweet Chardonnay)," said Orange County Fair coordinator Jerry Mead. He said results of Heck's sugar tests were confidential; "we're just assembling data to determine what rule changes might be implemented next year."
However, Mead admitted that after sugar tests of about 150 wines, "we found large numbers of Chardonnays--dozens--that had been entered as totally dry but which had as much as 0.4% to 1% residual sugar."
Mead said he didn't approve of wineries "leaving sugar in Chardonnays, even when it's not detectable, because it's not good for wines you want to age."
People seem to be more forgiving about residual sugar in other white wine varieties that are traditionally made dry, including Sauvignon Blanc.