America is the world's largest consumer of sugar and sweeteners, according to federal statistics. A fair amount of that sweetness is concealed in saltier foods such as ranch dressing, but that only confirms that we like even our savory foods a little sweet.
Unsurprisingly, most American red wines are heavy on candied, concentrated fruit and vanilla notes that impart the sense, if not the substance, of sweetness. So why don't we tend to like wines that are sweet?
It's a shame, because some of the world's greatest wines are sweet. A few drinkers like it that way, but generally to the exclusion of dry wine; the sugar, not the wine, is the attraction. Perhaps most consider sweeter wines too frivolous, insubstantial or just strange. We may presume wine to be serious and "intellectual"; sugar isn't. And if we're considering Riesling, it could be those long, angular bottles with all that long, angular German on the labels.
It's important to distinguish between sweet and semisweet wines. Really sweet varieties, like Sauternes, are generally for dessert, but the semisweet ones (or demi-sec, in French) occupy, well, the sweet spot of pleasurable, food-friendly wines.
Perhaps the greatest of these come from Germany, where Riesling has long been king. This noble, white grape is rarely afforded its rightful respect here in the U.S., but in Germany it's the stuff of castles and counts.
The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, near Germany's borders with Luxembourg and Belgium, is generally considered Riesling's ne plus ultra. The vineyards rise high from the rivers, with up to 70 percent grades.
The steepness is important. The more acute angle of the sun compensates for the coolness of the region's climate, creating a delicious balance between ripeness and austerity.
"The steepness gives you more warmth, as the angle [has the] sun hitting the slope at close to 90 degrees, whereas a flat vineyard has a totally different angle," says Annegret Reh, whose family owns the ancient Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt estate. She has been visiting the Triangle regularly for more 30 years ("I just love it, love the mentality," she says), and she returns this week to preside over a wine dinner at Guglhupf.
But it isn't just the angle of the hills, it's what they're made of that's key to the Mosel's greatness.
"The secret is also the slate soil," Reh says. "A struggling plant produces better wines than a non-struggler. Slate provokes plants to go deep down in order to find nutrition." Indeed, Mosel wines have a mineral quality imparted by the slate. The minerality, along with cool-climate acidity, undergirds and delimits the natural sweetness.
If we eat in season, it follows that we should drink in season. This is the perfect time of year for Riesling. As wine writer Oz Clarke puts it: "Good Mosel [...] simply bursts with the happy, blossoming flavors of spring and early summer. As the first spring buds appear, everyone should whip out a bottle of Mosel Kabinett or Spätlese to remind themselves of the freshness and beauty of a world waking up again after the long dead haul of winter."
Kabinett? Spätlese? Ah, those confusing German wine labels. It's not as complicated as it seems, but if you're daunted by the nomenclature—and by sweet wines, generally—start out simple: Stick to those denoted Kabinett and Spätlese. These terms refer loosely to the sweetness level. Kabinett is the driest, Spätlese the next level up. From there, it's variations on Auslese and then Eiswein—most of these are for dessert—but leave that for later.
And heed Peter Liem, who visited the Triangle last month to promote his new book about sherry but began his wine writing career with the seminal online "Riesling Report": "There's nothing better in the Mosel," he declares, "than Spätlese."
Keep in mind, too, that Riesling is not necessarily sweet. "In Germany we produce a huge amount of dry wine," Reh says, diplomatically. The word trocken on a label means dry. Look, too, at the alcohol content. Sweetish German wine tends to hover around 8 percent—very low, which means you can safely drink more of it—but if you see 11–14 percent, it means more of the sugar has been converted to alcohol and the wine should be dry.
But the sweetish ones genuinely express German Riesling. Gregarious and nimble when young, they accompany a broader range of food than you might think, well beyond spicy, hot-sour food such as Thai curries.
Sweet has another counterweight besides sour and spicy: salty. This is where Riesling really proves itself at the table. Reh suggests, for example, Mosel Riesling with smoked fish, counseling, "The more sugar the wine has, the saltier should be the dish, or vice versa." Salty, sweet and sour together? Think globally, act locally: Try a fleshy Mosel with North Carolina barbecue. And next time you tuck into the notorious wine-killing artichoke, Riesling's "happy, blossoming flavors" will stay in flower.
Pairings can get quite sophisticated, elegant and surprising. Reh and Liem praise older Rieslings with venison. Reh offers the general reminder that the longer a dish takes to make, the older its match should be. Riesling's nobility owes partly to its remarkable longevity. The best can last a century. "The ageing 'rubs' off the pronounced fruit," Reh says. "The residual sugar stays analytically, but not sensorically. The older they are, the more subtle they get, and so match food better." In Liem's definitive words, "A 20- to 30-year-old Riesling is one of the greatest experiences in wine."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sweet dreams."