I was treated to Yquem on several occasions when I was in Bordeaux, France, last month. Every time I have an Yquem or any great mature sweet wine, I say to myself: 'Why don't I buy and drink this more often?'
Special conditions such as 'noble rot' are required to craft this gorgeous honey-amber toned elixir, which makes grown men moan and sigh in public. But sweet wines struggle to find their place in our health-conscious modern society and on our dining tables.
For years I have bemoaned the simple, hackneyed wine and food pairing edict found in old-fashioned books suggesting 'sweet wines pair best with spicy Asian dishes' and Gew?rztraminer is the wine for all Chinese meals, of course, because of its sweet lychee and spicy flavours. It isn't that I am against pairing sweet wines with the heat of chillies and other aromatic spices; I find intensely sweet wines can play havoc with the flavour of well-prepared food. Sweet wines are the last thing on my mind when I want something to go with my spicy, chilli-laden meal. My first thought is: 'How would the chef feel if I just sprinkled some sugar over this dish?'
Besides altering the balance of flavours, sweet wines introduce the element of a sweet beverage to the dining table, which, depending on the culture, can be an anomaly. I grew up not having dessert, and a sweet beverage would be considered anathema to a delicious savoury meal in my family. Most of my Cantonese as well as Korean friends share similar sentiments - sweet wines are for dessert, not for the main course. Wine lovers agree: sweet wines are great when they are at the end of a formal meal, perhaps occasionally as an aperitif, but not as part of our everyday meal.
As a result, sweet wines languish in the cellars of collectors, they make few inroads in auction circles, and prices rise only modestly even for the best vintages from the finest producers. This is a huge contrast to 100 years ago, when sweet wines from Germany commanded prices on a par with the very best red wines from Bordeaux. While young vintages of top first growth Bordeaux have now reached over US$1,000 per bottle, sweet wines from the very best producers such as JJ Prum in the Mosel region or Climens in Barsac struggle to sell their wines at one-fifth of that price.
Sweet wines are clearly not in vogue. Health-conscious drinkers are moving away from dessert and sweet wines; wine lists in major cities around the world increasingly marginalise sweet wines.
Even in Germany, the epicentre of collectable, late-harvest sweet wines, most German wine drinkers prefer dry wines. 'It goes better with food,' is the simple reply.
In Asia, there are added challenges for sweet wines. We have even less of a sweet tooth than many other cultures, and at the end of a meal we often move from dry wines to whisky or cognac, not sweet wines. If we pair sweet wines with food, it has to be one with considerable age so the perception of sweetness has softened and the flavours are layered and gentle rather than intense. Overt sweetness can easily alter the balance of food flavours and can be as aggressive as raw, overt tannins in young red wine. There is another explanation as to why sweet wines are unfashionable at present. In the 1960s and 1970s, sweet wines became synonymous with cheap, insipid entry-level wines. Blue Nun and Black Tower are still around, and blush zinfandel from California has its rightful place in the wine industry even today.
Sweet wines slowly became associated with cheap and cheerful wines and have never completely shed this image. Flash forward 40 years and studies of wine consumer tastes still find a disconnect between those who consume off-dry or sweet wines and those who actually admit to liking them.
I plan to buck this trend and make a solo attempt at making sweet wines more fashionable by buying them. I know the best will easily age as long or longer than my top Bordeaux. Even if I don't enjoy them all in my lifetime, my children will thank me for my prescience and generosity.