By Renée Allen,CSS, CSW, FWS
If you are a purveyor of wine, you’ve probably secretly rejoiced when observing a patron browsing the Barolos or lingering in front of the latest Kermit Lynch selections. This is a person who knows wine, you think to yourself. Your efforts here will be rewarded.
Although your heart may not skip that same beat when noticing a young couple eyeballing smartly-named sweet and sparkling moscatos, working with novice wine drinkers can be an incredibly rewarding experience. It may be tempting to dismiss certain consumers as non-serious wine drinkers based on their age and selections, but every virgin palate provides the potential for education and expansion. While teaching wine and spirits both privately and at the university level, I have had the pleasure of introducing hundreds of fledgling wine drinkers a year to the world of wine.
As with many things epicurean, developing one’s taste for wine is a progression. It is the rare novice wine drinker who begins a lifelong love of wine with a glass of 15% ABV zinfandel. Most wine drinkers begin their vinous journeys with wines that they perceive as semi-sweet or sweet. In fact, studies show that, as a nation, Americans generally prefer their wines fruity and semi-sweet.
A dry wine is one that does not have enough sugar remaining after fermentation is complete for the average person to detect. If this residual sugar is above the average person’s detection threshold, it is considered off-dry, semi-sweet, or sweet, depending on the level of sugar remaining. Wines that often contain some perceptible residual sugar in them — e.g., moscato, white zinfandel and riesling — are the ones most-often identified as favorite wines of the millennials. There is some science behind this.
Sugar in wine makes our palates more receptive to the other components in the glass, softening the effects of phenolic compounds such as tannins, increasing mouthfeel, and even taming the alcohol itself. And while one can happily live out their life enjoying sweet wines alone, my experience has been that once exposed to a larger variety of wines, most of these sweet-sipping newbies are not only willing to expand their vinous rosters, they are downright excited about it. If a seller can take a consumer on a journey from his or her comfort zone of sweet moscato to the more nuanced tastes of pinot noir and beyond, it is a rewarding experience for both.
After establishing a patron’s preference for a sweeter profile, a good route to take is to offer a dry yet fruity white for them to taste. One of the most challenging distinctions for a novice wine drinker to make is that between a wine that is sweet and one that is dry but fruity, with the taster more often than not identifying the dry, fruity wine as being sweet.
Those with a self-proclaimed preference for sweet wine are often receptive to dry wines with fruity profiles. Sauvignon blanc, especially one from New Zealand, is the perfect dry but fruity wine to recommend for this maiden voyage. Other fruity but dry whites to try include verdejo, albarino, pinot blanc and vermentino, just to name a few.
It might seem that the logical next step would be to introduce lighter reds at this point, but don’t shy away from pulling out some bolder beauties to explore. While some uninitiated palates might reject mouth-puckering tannins and nose-tingling high alcohol at first, I have seen tasters eschew light-bodied pinot noirs while embracing complex cabernets.
Although science may once again offer an explanation — there is some research to indicate that very high alcohol may be interpreted by our brains as being sweet, even in the absence of perceptible residual sugar — personal taste could just as well provide the explanation. Of course, there will be new imbibers who already appreciate drier and darker wines — young-drinking cabernet sauvignon from California and Argentinian Malbec usually top the list — but even those who have never heard of these grapes are only a few sips away from becoming lifelong fans.
The purpose behind this is not to say that drinking dry is somehow superior to sipping sweet. The idea is that, with a little bit of education and experimentation, a whole new world of wines to enjoy can be unlocked for the new wine drinker. And, as with so many other things, the more one knows, the more one wants.
By helping consumers develop and expand their palates, the retailer cultivates customers who will ultimately purchase a greater variety of wine, as well as a potentially more expensive selection of wine. For the sweet-toothed few who refuse to dabble in dry wines, make sure you point them to the Sauternes aisle.
Renée Allen is the Director of Education for the Connecticut-based Wine Institute of New England. She is a wine and spirits educator and writer, as well as a wine judge. She can be contacted at www.wineinstituteofnewengland.com.