Get On Board with Off-Dry Wine

Illustration by Joel Hedstrom

I have been working in the food and beverage industry for over a decade now, as a bartender, cook, server, and so on. I truly care about what my guests enjoy and in each encounter I have with a potential consumer about wine, I inquire what they like in a wine or what flavors they are looking for. Too often the reply is shouted: “I don’t like ANYTHING sweet.”

Well, okay then. Mind you, I understand how much crap, including sugar, can be added to wine, often resulting in unbalanced, cloying, and chemically addled cups. But if one more person tells me they don’t like anything sweet, or a wine rep assures me that a bottle isn’t sweet with such grave concern, I might lose it. That’s dramatic, but it’s how I feel. Since when has everyone forgotten about the food pairing beauty of a gorgeous off-dry wine? Or a scintillatingly sweet dessert wine to wrap up a meal?

To clarify, most wines are considered dry. Technically, off-dry wines have at least 10 grams or more of residual (read: detectable grape sugar remaining in the wine). Often a wine’s aromas and palate flavors recall fresh fruit, misleading a consumer into perceiving a wine as “sweet.” Maybe I lucked out and managed to avoid the trauma of my grandma’s cream sherry that smelt of an upsetting milkshake, or dodge super cheap sugar-bomb wines corrupting the good names of riesling or moscato. Maybe I lucked out and have always had a place on my palate for both dry and sweet and the in-between, but no matter what did or didn’t happen I am here to make a case for off-dry and sweet wines. I am no longer interested in being a party of one. 

I would argue that truly off-dry wines with detectable sugars are some of the loveliest sippers in the wine world. They make for playful food pairings because, along with their residual sugars, they tend to have high acidity, making them ideal thirst-quenchers and a contrasting flavor to especially rich and heavy dishes.

Wine drinkers would do well to indulge in an off-dry riesling when eating al pastor tacos as easily as they would a Jaritos fruit soda to balance the spice. Rich, fatty, and salty chicken liver mousse absolutely sings when eaten alongside a glass of Pineau des Charentes (a sweet aperitif from Cognac that is a fortified blend of Cognac and grape juice from the region). Thai food full of heat and ginger can be easily enjoyed with a low-acid and slightly tropical semi-dry Gewürztraminer from Alsace.

Perhaps it is because drinking wine with delicious food might be one of my favorite past times, but I’ll follow Nina Simone’s lyrics—I want a little sugar in my bowl (glass).