Holiday Cheer. Why Americans Think They Don’t Like Sweet Wine

This column aims to solve one problem, maybe one you didn’t know you had, and to answer a question, maybe one you didn’t know you have asked. 

  • I want to have a festive holiday bridge party without my guests getting so drunk they can’t complete the 18 or 21 boards they should play in the Howell movement I’ve planned so everyone can play everyone else before stupor sets in. 
  • Why do so many Californians, and other Americans, think they don’t like sweet wine?

Be patient and you’ll see why the answer to the question solves the problem.  I’ll end with a Holiday Trick one of my mentees played on me at the bridge table in Holiday merriment.

Imagine drinking Simple Syrup, the confection made by mixing tons of sugar in with water.  Not a favorite of yours, no?  Cloying is a word wino’s 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.   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 Alsace in France as well as Mosel and Rhine in Germany. [Since I first discovered them in the early 1970s, my favorite wines for nearly all foods almost all the time are the German wines, ranging in sweetness from Kabinett through Auslese.  I could rarely afford the top ones—the Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen, but I have owned and enjoyed a few.]

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 drank much but did not begin to feel tipsy.  Only later did I read the label and realize 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, without bubbles, 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. 

Moscato d’Asti sells for around $15 a bottle in the U.S.  The bottles I bought today cost less, but I think I found a real bargain.  You might have to pay upwards of US$20. 

The punch line here is that Moscato d’Asti, not Moscato, not Prosecco, makes a perfect wine for your holiday bridge game because it is a bit sweet, crisp on the palate, bubbly, and best of all, low in alcohol.  No one will complain. 

At our holiday game, the following hand came up four boards from the end, but no one was tipsy because no one consumed drink with alcohol levels higher than 5.5%.  I sat South and I’ll take you through the bidding and play.  This was a game among Club regulars and friends.  East was a mentee of mine, BBOer Kramaiyer5.  His partner BBOer  ChuckLane5 overcalled my opening with a weak 2 and the bidding proceeded as shown.

Chuck led the 4.  Surely a singleton.  I see three out of the top four heart honors, so seems likely that West has seven hearts.  Maybe he has a singleton spade, don’t you think?   I am going to play East for the  ♠Q  held maybe four or, even, five times.  Queen fifth won’t bother me, as I’ll use those long diamonds to shorten him; I have controls in hearts and clubs.  You agree with me so far?  So we lead the ♠J from dummy and run it.  East follows with the ♠2 and West with the ♠8.  Now what?  I get so busy patting myself on the back that I can barely lead the ♠3 from dummy.  You OK with that?  I’m surprised that East follows with the ♠5, but I put on the ♠9 and nearly fall off my chair when Chuck, in West, plays the ♠10.   Spades have split 2=3, with East holding ♠Q52.   My mentee didn’t cover the ♠J.   I realize that had he done so, I’d likely have finessed against the ♠10 on the second round and lost to the ♠10 anyhow.  Made 5. What a Trick the guys played on me.  No harm; just a Holiday Treat.

BTW:  I expect plenty of negative comments about my jump response to the negative double. You?


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6 comments on “Holiday Cheer. Why Americans Think They Don’t Like Sweet Wine”
  1. If you haven't tried Tokaj Essencia, you're in for a treat. Also can recommend the Kracher sweet wines from Austria. Then there are Icewines--but you know all that.

    I would have bid 3S as well. As for the play--reasonable, but optimistic 😉

  2. That hot weather in Napa valley produces some wonderful Zinfandels. Of course, I look to cooler climates for my favorite Reisling.

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