There has long been a somewhat unspoken belief by wine marketers in the U.S. that “Americans tend to think dry but prefer to drink sweet.” This explains the many sweet or semi-sweet wines achieving high sales volume in the market while bearing varietal names such as chardonnay, merlot, zinfandel, etc., that most consumers associate as being dry wines.
When speaking about wine, the term “dry” relates to the absence of sugar and not the often misunderstood drying, or puckering, effect of tannin. Sweet wines contain some measure of “residual sugar” that for whatever reason did not convert to alcohol during the fermentation process. While most of the world’s fine wines are dry, there are those that are traditionally produced sweet (i.e., dessert wines both white and red) where this characteristic is used to define their quality and style.
Aaron Romano wrote an interesting article in the Jan. 31, 2016, Wine Spectator on, “What American Wine Drinkers Want,” where he outlined a recent study by Liz Thach and Kathryn Chang of Sonoma State’s Wine Business Institute. In the study, Thach and Chang polled 1,072 American wine consumers from all 50 states and a representative cross-section by ethnicity, income and wine experience.
The results of the study were revealing and certainly validated the fact that most Americans prefer fruity and sweet to dry, savory and tannic. But the opposite was true for the 26 percent of responders who classified themselves as experts or having advanced knowledge with wine. On viewing these results, Thach commented, “This is a perfect example of the American palate …”
For the most part, growing up in the U.S. meant a heavy dose of sweet soda pop and other drinks that formed preference patterns later in life. So it should be of little surprise to know most wine consumers began by drinking sweet wines like wine coolers, white zinfandel, and semi-sweet varietals or blends although some, as they gained further knowledge and comfort with wines, gradually moved on to drier examples.
Sweet wines have long been seen by producers and marketers as an entry level product but in today’s market cutting the sweetness a bit keeps consumers true to the brand even if they think the wines are dry. Many of today’s leading varietally labeled brands contain about 2 percent or more residual sugar (so are not dry) to appeal to the “sweet tooth” of the American consumer. This is especially true in the restaurant sector with chardonnay, pinot noir and others.
This semi-sweet style has gained traction, creating brand loyalty, and is often accompanied by more straightforward fruit flavors and descriptors like “smooth” or “easy to drink.” The category of Red Blends has come alive over the last five years and now represents an explosive growth segment in the market where the varietal composition of the wines has proven unimportant to the consumer.
These wines typically appear at popular prices with significant levels of residual sugar, and they strongly appeal to the average consumer.
The Thach/Chang study explored preferences between a wine drinker’s favorite styles and their most appealing varietals. The leading four categories of style in descending order were fruity, semi-sweet, smooth and sweet.
Weighing in at a distant No. 5 and 6 were dry and savory. The leading varietals were chardonnay and merlot with cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir trailing but not far behind.
Looking at this study and trends in the market, I think it’s fair to say the “somewhat unspoken” observation of the wine marketers is accurate with American wine drinkers for the most part continuing to “think dry and drink sweet.”
My Feb. 4 column — “Chardonnay’s many faces” — drew several opinionated responses on the love of chardonnay but disappointment with its stylistic changes over the years.
A Chardonnay Junkie — Thanks for reminding your readers that this “Queen” of grapes produces a rich layered wine of great elegance and complexity when in the hands of a deft winemaker. So many of my favorite dishes just would not be as enjoyable if not paired with the charm of a great bottle of chardonnay. Long live the “Queen.”
Bruce — You nailed the good, bad and ugly of chardonnay. As much as I love my California roots, there is nothing in my view comparable to the class and variety of Burgundy for great chardonnay. The best from California stick to their natural expression of the climate and terroir.