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Yale 62

Why Americans (Particularly Californians) Think They Won’t Like Sweet Wines
With an Introduction to Moscato d’Asti

By Roman L. Weil

In the three-week lull between football games in December, which I described in my two separate reports to classmates (here and here), I did some basic shopping at my local Costco. Before continuing, I remind you that those games had good outcomes for my Bama team, which elevated them to the Championship game in January, where things looked close until the final minutes and Georgia handily beat Bama.

SaraccoBack to the current topic. During that shopping trip (think toilet paper and roast chicken), I spotted a bargain on a corner of a prominent aisle. I saw, at one-third off its usual retail price, one of my absolute favorites wines for everyday consumption, all meals, any course, any time. The wine is Moscato d’Asti. My favorite and the one on sale is Saracco, but you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between brands costing $15-$18 per bottle, so don’t turn yourself inside-out looking for any particular brand. The picture is Saracco, the one I like.

Because it is my favorite and because I judged it such a bargain, I bought many to give out as holiday gifts. If I see you, I’ll give you one. But then, I decided, I had to write a bit about the wine as a Holiday Greeting to accompany the gift. Here it is.

Imagine drinking Simple Syrup, the confection made by mixing tons of sugar in with chilled water. Not a favorite of yours? Cloying is a word winos like me often use to describe that feel in our mouths, that taste.

Now, imagine squeezing lemon juice, lots of it, into that mixture. Taste it. Tastes better, no? Lemonade? Would you agree that the liquid is just as sweet as before you added the lemon juice. Right? The sugar didn’t go anywhere; still in the glass, right?

The acid from the lemon juice cut down on the cloying feeling in your mouth. I can’t explain the food chemistry involved but could send you to reference books that do. I know from experience and reading experts’ writings that when sweet liquids have the right amounts of acidity, they taste better.

When wine grapes grow in sunny weather, two things happen. The more intense the sunshine the more the sugar develops in the grape juice and the more the natural acids in the juice dry out. Hot weather for growing wine grapes means high sugar content and low acid. I’m not sure what’s happened in recent years, but before 2010, the hottest year in the Bordeaux region of France was not as hot as the average year in Napa Valley.

Is it any wonder that California wine lovers think there isn’t any such thing as a good sweet wine? They haven’t had any (I should say ‘much,’ but I like to write in extremes to irritate those who know better), because while California could produce lots of sweet wine, none of it would have any natural acidity. Wine makers have pretty much given up trying. The wine makers know how to get rid of the sugar—they turn it into alcohol. (Sugar in grape juice either remains behind to cause sweetness or gets vinified into alcohol. Wines from hotter climates, all else equal, have higher alcohol content than wines from cooler climates, but that’s another subject.) The great sweet wines come from the cooler wine growing regions such as Sauternes in France as well as Mosel and Rhine in Germany.

Roman Weil

Roman Weil

A few years ago an old girlfriend took me as her guest to a friend’s wedding where the host served only three wines, one of which was Moscato d’Asti, which I’d not before tried. I was stupefied by its taste, sweetness, crispness [the word I and others use to describe the feeling in our mouths caused by the acid balance right for our palates]. I began to drink it copiously and did not begin to feel tipsy. Later I read the label and realized that the alcohol content was only 5.5%. What a treat. All that enjoyment and it didn’t make me drunk. I haven’t yet said that this wine is moderately sparkling. If you can’t see the bubbles coming up in the glass, you have a bad bottle; get another. I haven’t yet said that Moscato is more commonly available than Moscato d’Asti. Don’t buy it thinking you have the wine I’m recommending here. I’m not a fan of plain Moscato, which has no bubbles and is not sweet, so has high alcohol. It has in common with Moscato d’Asti the muscat grape and the same origin in Italy.

I’ll not tell you how expensive it is until after you try it. If I told you now, you might develop a bias against it. Keep in mind that the Champagne it competes with costs $30 per bottle on up. The better known Prosecco is, to my taste, drivel.

In sum, try this wine even if you expect not to like it. Toss it out if you can’t stand it. Better yet, screw the top back on and give the partially used bottle back to me. But tell me that you agree this wine tastes unlike any sweet wine you’ve disliked before.


Never one to let written work go to waste, I turned the above mini-essay into a bridge column. Ha. Think that can’t easily be done. Here’s a link to the published column.

We invite your comments below.

1 comment to Why Americans (Particularly Californians) Think They Won’t Like Sweet Wines

  • George Grumbach

    In addition to the balanced sugar and acidity, Roman’s current favorite wine is defined by the muscat grape, which has a unique taste or aroma. Sometimes muscat table grapes are available; try them too if you like their unique taste. Excellent essay, Roman.