where’s the sweet wine?

I’m wondering whether winemakers and producers aren’t selling us wine drinkers out. Wine is now more widely available than it ever was before and the quality of wine has risen, across all price points, but especially at the lower and mid-ranges – which is obviously great. But something is being lost, and the makers are letting it happen.

Many newcomers to the world of wine used to find his or her preferred tipple in the guise of a late harvest wine, wines with more residual sugar. This sweetness eased the entry into wine. Having enjoyed this style of wine, we may decide to try something a little less soft and sweet, moving along the continuum to the off-dry, to the fruity – until reaching the very dry (and often tannic) experience of the full-bodied red.

These wines were, and still are, generally considered the highest form of the winemaker’s art. With no sweetness to mollify the drinker, the wine has to stand on its strengths as a complex, balanced drink, often challenging.

Look at the range of wines today. Except for a definite (but struggling) sector for full-sweet and noble late harvest wines, there are very few off-dry or special late harvest wines. That bridging category seems to have disappeared. Yet the newbie doesn’t seem to struggle to dive into wine appreciation.

The reason is simple: today’s wines have higher sugar levels – across the board – than the wines of only a decade ago. There is no need to move along a spectrum, you’re as likely to enjoy a light Chenin blanc as you are to love the fat Cabernet sauvignon.

Today, the most important difference between wines is price, not style. The cab will be more expensive (due to the wood it’s matured in and the heavy bottle), and its higher price is more likely to inform your choice than stylistics or preferences like the fact that you prefer a softer, fruitier wine. They’re both likely to fill that category.

This collapse of stylistic strata arguably removes a hurdle for the newcomer – she can drink whatever label catches her fancy or whatever she is sold or whatever is at the price point she prefers to show off to her guests.

But the loss is the diversity in wine, the intrinsic and cultural differences between a late harvest style of wine and a savoury, complex wine. These distinctions are fading as wines sell as uniform commodities. There is little motivation for the winemaker to try to rise to the challenge of making a fine dry wine – when you can just leave some sugar to democratise the flavour and leave it to the marketing to make the sale.