John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 18, 2014

Hangovers, Overweight Canadians and Shadowy “Dry” Wines; Statistical Value from Spain and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Wondering why you woke up with a hangover, even though you didn’t drink that much, or why you can’t lose that extra inch around the waist? This week I take a close look at the shadowy world of sweet wines masquerading as dry wines and pull the wool off the proverbial eyes. If, on the other hand, you believe that what you don’t know won’t kill you, then jump straight to featured Spain, where, according to probability logic, values should be found, and indeed I found five smart buys from the January 18th release. I’ve also picked Top Ten Smart Buys from the rest of the release.

Hangovers, Overweight Canadians and Shadowy “Dry” Wines

According to a CBC Radio report, 59% of Canadians, and growing, are fat. Why? The fact that we consume 200 more calories a day on average than a mere generation ago has a lot to do with it (though our southern neighbors have added a whopping 700 calories). And the main culprit is, you guessed it, sugar. Pure refined added sugar, and everything with an ‘ose’ ending (sucrose, glucose, fructose, etc.), or any one of sugar’s half-masked henchmen like molasses, corn or cane syrup, are found in virtually every processed food – just read any ingredient label.

Experts also point to sugary drinks – soft drinks, energy drinks and all manner of other fruit-based (or simulated fruit flavour-based) drinks, as a major source of unnecessary sugar, and thus calories, in our diets. Such drinks were virtually non-existent, or very limited, in the not too distant past. Now it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry.

The fact is, we like sweet tastes, which is nothing new. Human beings are biologically programmed to be drawn to sweet tastes, which represent calories and therefore survival, and to reject bitter tastes, since most poisonous substances in nature have a bitter profile.

SugarThe trouble is, we are not subsistent hunters and gatherers any longer, and we need far fewer calories to survive than we take in on average. And most of us aren’t aware of just how many calories we are consuming every day. You have to read an awful lot of small print and break out the calculator to keep track. And even when you attempt to consciously control your sugar intake, empty sucrose calories show up in the most unexpected places, in foods and drinks you would never think to find them.

And there’s now a new and rising source of unexpected sugars in our lives: wine.

No, I’m not talking about sweet or “dessert” wines. Sweet wines are of course nothing new. Although the popularity of late-harvested, sun-dried, botrytis-affected, frozen grape and sweet fortified wines has waned significantly in our generation, ironically enough, they were at one point the most sought after wines in the world. Those were the days when calories were scarcer and consumers weren’t overloaded with sugar at every meal, in every bite and every sip. Today, sweet wine sales are struggling.

But I’m not talking about these wines, the ones that openly, proudly, un-shamefully declare themselves sweet. They make no attempt to hide their sweetness – it’s all there for anyone to read on the label. I am admittedly a confirmed fanatic of great off-dry and sweet wines – give me large draughts of magical Mosel riesling, transcendental tokaji aszú, shimmering sec-tendre chenin blanc, or give me death. But I know exactly what I’m getting, and I can intelligently dose my sugar intake.

What I am referring to is the growing number of sugar-laden wines, especially reds, masquerading as dry wines and hiding in plain sight alongside truly dry wines in every section of your local wine shop. Off-dry reds are no longer exclusive to Georgia and Eastern Europe. An increasing number of wines, as it turns out, contain measurable amounts of sugar without telling anybody, and these are among the best-selling wines in the world.

We haven’t lost our collective sweet tooth, obviously. Correlating sugar levels with wine sales, I too, would be tempted to drop a few cubes into the vats. In fact, only one of the top 10 best-selling new and old world wines on the LCBO list contains less than 6 grams of sugar per litre – Oggi Pinot Grigio, Italy ($8.95) – with a modest 5 grams of sugar per litre. The rest contain more, much more, in some cases four or five times.

But savvy marketers also know that most people don’t want to know that they’re consuming sugar, since at the same time as sugar levels in all foods are rising, we are also increasingly exposed to the message that sugar is bad for you, and that obesity is on the rise in the Western world. So it’s smarter marketing to hide or obscure the fact that your product is sugar-rich.

What do you suppose would happen to Coca-Cola sales if the company changed their marketing slogan to “Drink Sweet Coca-Cola, 10 Sugar Cubes in Every Can”? Coke, is over 10% pure sugar (108 grams per litre). (And you can forget diet sodas as a healthier alternative, by the way. They’ve been shown to actually cause weight gain).

Or how about “Its Copious Sugar Gives You Wings” for Red Bull’s next campaign? It too contains over 10% sugar. Or perhaps: “Juice-Up on Snapple’s Super Sweet Lemon Iced Tea” (8% sugar). I can see sales crashing like a kid after a sugar high.

Again, there’s nothing new here. Wine marketers of the last half-century have often played down sweetness in what were supposed to be serious “dry” wines. Remember that Hochtaler slogan from the 1970s and ‘80s: “dry, without the edge”? Hochtaler was, and is, anything but dry. It’s the sugar that takes off the “edge”, but nobody wants to hear that. It’s willful deception.

The sugary self-delusion is also familiar on the consumer side. Sommeliers and merchants know that people, too, often like to talk dry, but prefer to drink sweet. It’s rare for a restaurant patron to request an off-dry or sweet wine before dessert. They’ll call it “smooth” or “fruity” or “not too edgy” instead, all code words, conscious or not, for wines with a bit of sugar. Try to sell them on that “lovely, sweet red wine” and it’ll be dismissed like a bowl of fried crickets.

But let me stress again that this is not an anti-sweet wine rant. A smart sommelier or wine merchant will connect the customer with the wine he or she really wants. People like sweet tastes. They shouldn’t be chased out of the wine market by militant sommeliers, wine writers and merchants who want to foist their bone-dry, bitter, austere pet wines on them. Recommend your latest favorite tannic nebbiolo to a customer who wanted jammy zinfandel, and watch them run.

But what I do object to is finding sugar in places it shouldn’t be expected, without fair warning. It’s about transparency on the label. Consumers should be able to make informed decisions on their sugar and caloric intake.

And there’s more to it than weight gain or tooth decay, as anyone who has overindulged in sweet cocktails, or sweet wines, can attest. Sugar magnifies the effects of alcohol, leaving you feeling even worse the next day. (Read about sugar hangovers and the nefarious effects of excessive sugar on the body – sounds like a bad hangover to me.) And what’s more, wines containing sugar also contain higher levels of added sulphites, necessary to prevent unwanted re-fermentation, which is of course bad news to sulphur-sensitive drinkers. And for the flavour purists, sweet wines are almost invariably sterile-filtered, again to eliminate the risks of spoilage organisms that feed on sugar, which also strips wine flavour at the same time.

I won’t even get into the more serious medical issues like immune system suppression, Candida or eczema, or worse, diabetes.

The deceptive wines that I’m referring to here don’t contain anywhere near the sugar levels of Coke or Snapple, but they do contain sugar.

For the record, according to the Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), a wine is considered dry when “the wine contains a maximum of either 4 g/L sugar or 9 g/L when the level of total acidity is no more than 2 g/L less than the sugar content.” (

Which is to say that a wine is still considered dry with up to 9 grams of sugar per litre, provided it also contains at least 7 grams per litre of tartaric acid. The LCBO’s sweetness descriptors are based on a clever similar system. Here’s how Dorina Brasoveanu, Manager of Quality Assurance at the LCBO describes it:

Our approach towards informing consumers about the sweetness of a wine is based on two pieces of information:
– A sweetness descriptor that describes the correlation between the perceived sweetness of the wine and its sugar & acidity content
– The actual sugar content found in the wine, expressed in g/L. Sweetness Descriptor & Sugar CodesWhile the first tool, the sweetness descriptor, gives a measure of the sweetness perception expressed as: extra dry (XD), dry (D), medium (M), medium-sweet (MS) and sweet (S); the actual sugar content would assist those consumers who for example need to monitor their sugar intake.

Our sweetness descriptors system is based on a mathematical algorithm that correlates the perceived sweetness of the wine to the sugar & acidity content. This model was determined by analyzing the sweetness perception as determined sensorially, against the actual sugar and acidity content.

High levels of (natural) acidity are encountered frequently in white wines from cool regions like, say, Ontario, Alsace, or Germany (which is why a pinch of residual sugar is needed to balance, and in the end the wines taste virtually dry). Here the sugar makes perfect sense, and in fact I would expect to find some sugar in certain high acid, cool climate whites. It’s not there to seduce you, but to balance the wine and make it less like battery acid.

But wines (especially reds) from warmer climates, which is where the majority of these deceptive wines come from, aren’t acidic. Indeed many need to have acid added to render the wine more stable. Any residual sugar is thus pure commercial pomade, designed to tap into your primeval instinct for survival. It’s quite brilliant, really, almost irresistible.

Sweetness is most often added before bottling as unfermented, or concentrated grape must, though in some cases grapes are allowed to over ripen to the point where they contain so much sugar that even when fermented out to a normal 13-14% alcohol, there’s residual sugar left, as in a late harvest wine without a late-harvest designation. A bag of sugar would be the last resort.

Read this description for Apothic red from California, one of the top-selling wines in Canada:

“Apothic Red reveals intense fruit aromas and flavors of rhubarb and black cherry, complemented by hints of mocha, chocolate, brown spice and vanilla. The plush, velvety mouthfeel and the smooth finish round out this intriguing, full-bodied red blend.”

Would you expect this wine to contain 19 grams of sugar per litre? According to the LCBO website, it does. That’s the equivalent of about four teaspoons, or four sugar cubes, in every bottle. That’s sweet by any measure.

Or check out the website description for Sandbank Winery’s top-five selling VQA Baco Noir:

“A full-bodied red wine with intense plum and wild cherry flavours. Notes of toasted oak provide a lingering finish. Our signature wine.”

Sounds inviting, only they fail to mention it’s also medium-sweet, thanks to a whopping 26 grams of sugar, or five teaspoons of sugar per bottle.

Trained tasters can reliably detect sugar in wine anywhere above about four grams (acidity notwithstanding), and can thus catch the ruse. But most consumers are not trained tasters, and for them the wine just tastes pleasantly round and plush. They won’t be conscious that they’re drinking lots of sugar. Would they enjoy the wine as much if they knew how much sugar it contains?

I have to applaud the LCBO’s recent decision to list the residual sugar for all wines on their website, It’s of course not as good as requiring wineries to include sugar content on the label, (like all other foods and beverages sold in North America, incidentally), but it’s a step.

If you care about your sugar intake and are in doubt about a wine, which you’ll always be, search for it on the LCBO website (you don’t have to be an Ontario resident) and you’ll see exactly how much sugar it contains.

In the meantime, here’s a tiny random sampling of popular wines that contain more sugar than you probably would have thought – nine grams or more. California is a top source of both reds and whites with residual sugar – be wary in particular of the recent rash of Californian red blends. But you can be sure that many popular, inexpensive brands from anywhere in the world contain significant sugar.

Sampling of popular wines by sweetness

Generally speaking, cheap European wines tend to be drier than cheap new world wines, but again, look them up to be sure. New world rosés almost invariably contain sugar; for dry versions look to traditional areas like Provence and the Rhône Valley, and then double-check.

Among whites, aromatic varieties like riesling, gewürztraminer and muscat/moscato tend to be sweeter more often than not (but not all are sweet!). New world chardonnay can also have more sugar than expected.

There are also some surprisingly sweet wines at the high-end of the supposedly dry wine market, so premium price alone doesn’t guarantee bona fide dryness. Also recall that all champagne and traditional method sparkling wine except those labeled brut zero, brut nature, non-dosé or similar contain sugar. Sparkling wine/champagne labeled brut alone can legally contain up to 15 grams/litre, though most have around 8-12 g/L (which is usually welcome considering the high acid).

For still wines, the sweet spot, pun intended, also looks to be around 8-12 grams/litre for maximum commercial impact – enough to give a wine that plush, velvety mouth-feel without being obviously dessert-wine sweet.

For the calorie counters, 1 gram of sugar contains four calories, and there are roughly 4 grams of sugar in one teaspoon and in one standard sugar cube. For the actual number of grams of sugar in a standard glass of wine (5oz /150ml), divide the number of grams per litre by 6 for a close approximation.

Spain: A Probable Source of Value

According to the amazingly comprehensive report published by Kym Anderson of the Wine Economics Research Centre at the University of Adelaide, the countries that gained the most in the global share of acreage between 2000 and 2010 include France, Italy, The United States, Australia and New Zealand (Canada gained slightly). Spain, at the other end of the scale, was the biggest looser.

Yet Spain remains world nº1 in terms of acreage, with nearly one-quarter of the world’s grapevine area. Students of probability will then note that Spain represents only 12% of world wine production by volume (low yields per hectare), and a mere 6% by value (that low yielding juice, often from old vines, sells for next to nothing relative to world scales). It’s a clear statistical probability then, considering the sheer volume of inexpensive, low-yielding, concentrated juice, that there should be many smart buys to be found in Spain. And indeed there are.

Iberian Peninsula on Fire

This inevitability has not been overlooked in Ontario. Spain (and Portugal) are on fire, and collectively, the Iberian Peninsula is up 19% in VINTAGES, the largest increase for any country in the last reporting period. The January 18th VINTAGES release features Spain, with a particularly rich collection from the trendy region of Priorat along with modern and traditional examples from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Here are my top five picks from the release.

2006 La Perla Del Priorat Clos Les Fites, Priorat ($30.95)

2005 Hacienda Lopez De Haro Reserva, Rioja ($17.95)

2009 Planets De Prior Pons, Priorat ($24.95)

2009 Ares Crianza, Rioja ($17.95)

2010 Cepa 21 Hito, Ribera Del Duero ($17.95)

La Perla Del Priorat Clos Les Fites 2006Hacienda Lopez De Haro Reserva 2005Planets De Prior Pons 2009Ares Crianza 2009Cepa 21 Hito 2010

Top Ten Smart Buys

And in the smart buys category this week, there’s a fine range to choose from among no fewer than eight countries. I’ve listed the residual sugar for each as per the LCBO laboratory measurements, so you can make the call on whether it’s right for you:

2009 Obsidian Cabernet/Merlot
Waiheke Island, New Zealand ($29.95, 4 g/L)

2011 Mönchhof Robert Eymael Riesling
Mosel, Germany ($16.95, 74 g/L)

2012 Fouassier Pere & Fils Pouilly-Fumé
Loire, France ($19.95, 5 g/L)

2012 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz Coonawarra
South Australia ($22.95, 4 g/L)

2011 Castello Di Querceto Chianti Classico
Tuscany, Itlay ($22.95, 5 g/L)

Obsidian Cabernet Merlot 2009Mönchhof Robert Eymael Riesling 2011Fouassier Pere & Fils Pouilly Fumé 2012Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012Castello Di Querceto Chianti Classico 2011

2010 Santa Ema Barrel Select 60/40 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot
Maipo Valley, Chile ($13.95, 6 g/L)

2008 Valle Andino Reserva Especial Syrah
Colchagua Valley, Chile ($13.95, 5 g/L)

2007 Boutari Grande Reserve
Greece ($16.95, 5 g/L)

2012 De Morgenzon DMZ Chardonnay
Western Cape, South Africa ($14.95, 4 g/L)

2011 Château Jolys Ac Jurançon Sec
($16.95, 6 g/L)

Santa Ema Barrel Select 60-40Valle Andino Reserva Especial Syrah 2008Boutari Grande Reserve 2007De Morgenzon Dmz Chardonnay 2012Château Jolys 2011

That’s all for this week. Stay dry and see you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

From the Jan 18, 2014 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Spain Best Buys
All Reviews


Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2012

Fortessa Canada Inc.

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