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Column: At the Bar with Hal Wilson

As the Maroon 5 song goes, we all ‘need a little sweetness’. Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants looks into the resurgence of wines with residual sugar

Let’s face it, we all like a little bit of sweetness in our lives, and sugar crops up in our diet in many ways. But ask a wine merchant for a wine that’s ‘medium-dry’, ‘off-dry’, or god forbid ‘medium-sweet’ and he (it’s always a he in this scene!) is liable to roll his eyes and start pigeonholing you into the ‘uncouth customer’ category.

Our inclination recently has been to accept that wine should be bone dry, with alcohol taking over the important role that sugar once played in making wine ‘smooth’, or satisfying on the palate. There are very good reasons for this. Where sugar would have been used to balance out high acidity or smooth out astringent tannins, now we have riper, healthier grapes that naturally have lower acidity and softer tannins. Higher alcohol smooths the feel of the wine, and temperature controlled fermentation offers fruitier aromas and flavours that your brain thinks are sweeter, even in the absence of residual sugar.

Of course trends change over time and now many of us are seeking lower alcohol wines, with higher natural acidity, and winemakers have begun to pick their grapes earlier. Does that suggest a comeback for a bit of residual? I think it does. Of our 20 best-selling wines of 2019, seven have noticeable residual sugar levels and another seven are not bone dry (by which I mean having less than three grams residual per litre). I think we need to come to terms with the fact that a little sugar makes most things a bit more delicious, and there is no harm or shame in liking that.

160836693 (20784514)
160836693 (20784514)

Some producers go to some lengths to fool us into thinking there is less sugar than there really is. Prosecco producers proudly declare much of their amazingly popular wine to be ‘Extra Dry’. Well that can’t have much sugar in it then. Wrong! Extra Dry is actually a sweeter classification of sparkling wines than those called ‘Brut’, and even Brut wines have residual sugar up to 12 grams per litre. Extra Dry covers a band of added sugar, or ‘dosage’ of 12-17 grams per litre.

So what does the added sugar do to the Prosecco? It’s an integral part of what gives it its appeal, helping it to be light, fizzy, fruity and relatively low in alcohol. As a result sales of Prosecco in the UK are likely to exceed 120 million bottles this year, dwarfing Champagne and all other sparkling wines. A spoonful of sugar definitely helps the fizz go down, and the sales go up - 80% up over the last five years. Try our Le Calle Prosecco Extra Dry (£10.99).

Other popular wines where residual sugar plays a significant role in defining their style are the Demi-Sec styles of Vouvray, most German and some Alsatian wines. While wines from Vouvray, Germany and Alsace can also be bone dry, you can find some absolutely delicious off-dry styles, that seem to balance the natural high acidity of the grapes these wines are made from. Three wines in particular to try are Greco-Fiano 'Pipoli' 2018 from Italy’s Basilicata (£14.99), Vouvray Sec Tendre 2017 Chateau Gaudrelle from the Loire Valley (£15.99) and Graacher Domprobst Riesling Kabinett Feinherb 2014 Max Ferd. Richter (£16.99).

Two of our most popular red wines also have some residual sugar. The Italian Primitivo I Muri 2017 Vigneti del Salento, Puglia (£11.99) is made from the Primitivo grape in Southern Italy, known to reach high levels of potential alcohol if fermented to full dryness. Fermentation is stopped with this wine though, leaving 10 grams of residual sugar per litre, and the balance of acidity and sugar and rich dark fruits is absolutely delicious and very moreish. A huge favourite of ours over the last decade is Montaignan Old Vine Carignan (£7.99), which is ‘thermo-vinified’ to extract flavour and colour without harsh tannins, and some residual sugar also makes it a mid-week quaffer par excellence.

So please don’t feel ashamed to ask for wines with a touch of residual. They are likely to be instantly enjoyable and, as long as they are well-made, really impressive too. Cheers!

Hal Wilson is the owner of Cambridge Wine Merchants, which has branches on King’s Parade, Bridge Street and Cherry Hinton Road, as well as managing the University Centre Wine Bar on Mill Lane.

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