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  • The Chopping Blog

Not Too Sweet: Pairing Sweeter Wine with Food

Mary Ross
Posted by Mary Ross on May 21, 2024


‘Sweet’ or ‘sour’ was how customers ordered wine from my dad, when he sold his first bottle one minute after the Repeal of Prohibition.

Some things have stayed the same since 1934. Sweetness level is still a primary factor when people order wine.  And while ‘dry’ is the current term for not-sweet, I suspect people still relate to sour. In fact, many wines are specifically crafted to refresh the palate with lemon-like acidity, just like that lemon wedge that’s garnished every seafood dish you’ve ever ordered, anywhere. If a wine tastes sour to you, try tasting it with food that’s often served with lemon.

To test this theory, join me on June 7th for Spanish Wine & Tapas, featuring four courses and five wines, beginning with the extra-tart Albarino, Bodegas Lagar de Besada paired with Gambas con Ajillo (Sautéed Shrimp with Garlic and Saffron). 

 Gambas con Ajillo The irony is that, even as our U.S. diet sweetened up, enthusiasm for sweet wine fell. Dry wine became the standard for the U.S., with sweet sales relegated to White Zinfandel and generic jug wines. But that’s changing.

How Sweet is Sweet?

Let’s put wine sweetness into context: In winedom, sweetness is measured in grams per liter (g/l) of sugar remaining in wine after fermentation. In the U.S., most people perceive sweetness beginning at 6 g/l; in Europe, it’s 3 g/l. California Chardonnay hovers around 10 g/l. Coca-Cola - one of the top-selling beverages in the known universe – translates to more than 100 g/l in high fructose corn syrup. That’s about the same as Port wine with three big differences:

  1. Port’s primary sugar is the healthier glucose;
  2. You don’t drink a liter of Port. 
  3. Acid. The acid in well-made sweeter wine balances and brightens wine sugars, with resulting flavors that aren’t cloying, but instead like biting into a perfectly ripe piece of fruit.

With sweet wine sales surging 40% during the pandemic (compared to an overall increase of 22%), more Americans find that sweet wine with food can be as thrilling as (dry) Cabernet with steak or (dry) Champagne with cured salmon.  Here are some pairing tips.

TCB New Sweet Wines


Sugar & Spice Makes Everything Nice

If you measure the success of your barbeque sauce by how much it makes you sweat, look towards sweeter wine. Dry wine washes the palate, leaving it vulnerable to spicy heat. Sweeter wine’s sugar coats the palate, like a layer of asbestos against 3-alarm spice. For spicy recipes including barbeque, Asian or Indian, The Chopping Block has just added:

“Sweet Red”, Castello Del Poggio, NV, ITALY, $20: “Sweet Red” almost says it all but leaves out the wine’s easy-to-enjoy complexity of sweet berries and cherries and long, smooth finish. Serve as a chilled, red cocktail and to complement spicy and/or grilled meats, poultry and veggies and blue cheese. (While sweetness level isn’t available from the winery, guesses are in the 30 g/l range.)

Sweet Red

Sweeter for the Sweets

It’s important that your wine is sweeter than your dish, else acidic wine flavors will dominate. If the dish is a teensy-sweet – like sushi – serve a wine that’s a teensy sweeter, like TCB’s dry-ish Austrian Riesling from Schloss Gobelsburger, (about 6 g/l).  With sweet entrée’s, pastries, and desserts, look for a solidly sweet wine like:

Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG, Marenco “Pineto”, 2023, PIEDMONT, ITALY, $30: Can one wine complement foods ranging from waffles at breakfast, Asian Pad Thai for lunch, dinner of barbequed ribs and Italian ice for dessert?  If it’s Brachetto it can! This traditional Italian bubbly is pretty in pink, with sweet berry flavors and less than 6% alcohol, the original rosè all day, for drinkin’ not for thinkin’.  (125 g/l.)

Sparkling Italian sweet wineSpanish Wines and Tapas wraps up with luscious "Isabel" Cream Sherry (about 100 g/l) matched with two dishes (one sweet, one salty), to test the rules of wine and food and decide on rules of your own.

To add to Sherry and Port, we’ve added a new fortified dessert wine to our list:

Tannat, Pablo Fallabrino “Alcyone Dessert Wine” NV, URUGUAY, $48 (500ml bottle):  Dripping with flavors of creamy caramel and chocolate.  Grapes are soaked in a family recipe of herbs and dried fruits, fortified with brandy, then rested for 12 months in French oak.  (125 g/l +.)  Serve with dessert, as a dessert in itself, and for all of your sweetest occasions.

Dessert wine

View our complete wine list online.

And don't miss that Spanish Tapas and Wine Pairing class on Friday, June 7 at 6:30pm at Lincoln Square where you’ll experience how Spanish wine offers unique, delicious flavors especially when paired with Spanish-inspired small plates. 

Register now

Topics: Tapas, wine classes, Wine, Spanish, wine tasting, dessert wine, wine pairing, wine and food pairing, sweet wine

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