Sunday, November 05, 2006

A spoonful of sugar

A piece that originally appeared in Wine International magazine
Mary Poppins doesn’t often feature as an authority in articles about wine but, after tasting a range of the biggest-selling reds and whites in Britain and America and analysing the stupendous success of Yellow Tail (the Australian wine whose annual sales have grown from zero to over 120,000,000 bottles in under five years, I thought it time to give her the recognition she deserves. A spoonful of sugar not only helps the medicine go down; it does positive wonders for ordinary wine and food. The Romans knew about this, of course – and made plentiful use of honey. Asian cooks favour palm sugar while the sweetener of choice for manufacturers of supposedly savoury foods, from peanut butter to flavored crisps is more likely to be corn syrup, but the principle is the same.
The attraction of sweetness is one of nature’s little tricks to draw animals and birds to the fruits that will provide the energy they need. But its appeal is more complex than that. In his latest book, ‘Taste’ ( from Max Lake, the Australian surgeon-turned-winemaker-turned-authority-on -flavours-and-smells (of whom more in these pages, soon) points out that sugar evokes ‘warm and pleasant feellngs’. Even more interestingly, sugar apparently fosters what the men in white coats at the food factories call ‘go-away’ – a handy piece of jargon referring to the way it ‘allows fatty foods to be swallowed without leaving the inside of the mouth coated in fat particles’. In other words, the addition of a little sweetness to your prawn flavoured crisps enables you to eat a little more – and get a little fatter. No one knows more about this than the burger chains whose buns routinely contain 25% sugar.
If you except milk shakes, cream liqueurs, tea, coffee and hot chocolate, fat isn’t a significant component of most drinks, but in wine, as in Coca Cola, sugar can help to improve what the white-coated ones call ‘mouthfeel’. But it does more than that. As Lake points out, sweetness is a potent seasoning that brings out other flavours. Tomato sauce tastes better with a tiny amount of sugar and a wine with a higher sugar content has ‘a more lifted bouquet’ than one that is otherwise identical.
The wine world has traditionally been ambivalent towards sweetness, when it falls outside the realm of bottles that make a point of being fortified or made from super-ripe grapes. Almost everything else is supposedly dry.
Except of course, that it isn’t: most supposedly dry wines contain a certain amount of sugar. In France, where Mars Bars and Coke are relatively recent arrivals, this might commonly be around the two grammes per litre (0.2% of the finished wine) that the yeasts were unable to convert into alcohol. In the New World, especially North America, a ‘dry’ wine might have five times that level of sweetness. Interestingly, US wine writers argue over whether the sugar begins to be perceptible at five, six, seven or eight grammes. Most Frenchmen would claim that it is noticeable at four. Much, however, depends on acidity. Brut Champagne, for example, with up to 15 grammes of sugar can taste quite dry – if it has is enough acid bite. New Zealand Sauvignon is often sweeter than it seems – for precisely the same reason. I find sweetness in red wine more offensive, but the success of Piat d’Or in the 1980s and Yellow Tail and Blossom Hill today prove there are plenty of people who appreciate it. Some popular reds in the US now carry seven or eight grammes of sugar, and there is a move in France to follow suit. Producers of Rhone reds and of Muscadet – once the embodiment of dry white wine, but now increasingly hard to sell –are now making wines with four or more grammes.
All of which may come as news to the authors of websites and books promoting the Atkins, anti-carbohydrate, diet, most of whom presume anything less than a ‘medium sweet’ white to be totally free of sugar, and thus of carbs.. In fact, as Sutter Home’s website frankly acknowledges, a glass of typical Californian Chardonnay has around 3 grammes of carbohydrate, so, one bottle would give you around 15 grammes , or one carb. Which funnily enough, is roughly the same as you’d get from a teaspoon of Mary Poppins’ sugar

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